Blue Waters intern visualizes a career in app development

07.12.17 -

As a high school student, and even as an early undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Max Collins was not sure what he wanted to do after graduation from college.

This all changed as a result of his time spent as an NCSA Blue Waters intern and the time he spent working with Dr. Alan Craig, an NCSA researcher and leading expert in augmented and virtual reality. Collins, a psychology major graduate, now has a plan of action for the next phase of his education and his eventual professional pursuits.

Collins was especially interested in technology, but more from a non-traditional point of view than a typical engineering student.

"When I first came here, I was in engineering and I started off doing computer science," Collins said. "In my life I’ve been interested in the technology side of things, but also the psychology side, so I feel like this was a great way to mingle those two and understand the human impact as well as the tech impact on the human experience."

Having just graduated in May, Collins is headed to the University of California, Irvine to pursue a PhD in informatics starting this fall, and he is preparing to release a smartphone app called "VisMe" that uses augmented reality to display more than 125,000 sets of proteins from the open-source Protein Data Bank (PDB).

The Blue Waters Student Internship Program engages approximately 20 undergraduate students with computational science mentors each year. The program provides a stipend and allows the students to attend a two-week Blue Waters Petascale Institute, plus a small compute allocation on the supercomputer itself.

"When Max came to the Blue Waters internship program he was wanting to do a visualization-related project and my response was that from my perspective data was data and it really didn't matter to me where the data came from," said Dr. Craig. "The data that we visualize could have been very simply computed on a small machine, or highly complex from a resource like Blue Waters. When we were talking about it, I spoke with the internship program folks and asked if that would be okay if we ended up not requiring Blue Waters for the actual visualizations. They said that not only would it be okay, but the project would be a great project."

Collins used the Blue Waters supercomputer in a few ways, notably as part of his high-performance computing training, and Dr. Craig noted the importance of Blue Waters as not just a supercomputer, but as a educational resource, like in the case of Max's internship:

"Max used Blue Waters as part of his training through the internship program. He also used Blue Waters to compute some of the first molecules we visualized in the project. The Blue Waters machine is not directly involved in the project right now," said Dr. Craig. "When we were first discussing and designing the project, we didn't know if we would be able to render all the molecules on the fly on user demand, so we thought we might need to render every molecule in the PDB, which would have required time on Blue Waters and significant storage.

"However, at the moment, Blue Waters is not being used to render the molecules that the project is visualizing. We are able to do that on a smaller remote server on user demand one molecule at a time."

Aaron Weeden, Blue Waters student internship program coordinator at Shodor, an educational organization for computational science and one this is funded by the Blue Water project, was proud to see Collins' progress through his year with Dr. Craig: "Max is a great example of someone possessing the potential to excel in petascale computing if given the opportunity. By working closely with Dr. Craig, Max was able to actively engage with HPC, data science, and visualization. We are proud of Max extending the accomplishments of his internship towards the beginnings of a career that blends his passions and interests and allows him to further develop his skills in computation, inquiry-based problem solving, and critical thinking."

The goal of VisMe is to offer an interactive three-dimensional perspective that is typically not available in the classroom. Collins says that, "learning about molecular structures in 2D is much less comprehensive," and he added that this new tool he developed during his internship, "will be a free visualization tool for the end user, and offer a great deal of aid to the learning and teaching process."

VisMe will offer the user a simple way to examine thousands of sets of proteins without uploading those proteins to the app itself; VisMe is essentially a pipeline to those very proteins. That way, the app is easy and light to download, while still allowing for full interaction with a big data set. All it takes is a "target image," which is typically just a piece of paper with printed "buttons" that give the image more functions.

Although the app isn't available to the general public yet, anybody can request to be part of a test flight program by contacting Dr. Craig.

Collins always had an interest in technology and a meeting with Craig while he was still in high school helped Collins to focus his research interests while on the Urbana campus.

"Working with Dr. Craig through this internship has directly impacted everything I’ve done since," said Collins. "I don't think I'd be doing any of this awesome stuff that I'm doing now if it wasn't for Dr. Craig. It's how I learned that doing research is awesome and it's cool to be able to contribute to a big scientific community."

Collins' work with VisMe (formerly referred to as "VisMo") started as something he just thought "looked cool."

"I had no grasp of AR (augmented reality) other than to be able to say that 'this looks cool,'" Collins said. "Dr. Craig showed me some demos while I was a senior in high school and I came to campus to visit. I thought this was so cool, but I never thought that I'd be able to have a hand in it."

"What we wanted to do was use augmented reality to let people see the physical nature of these structures in the real world," Collins said. "It's really helpful to allow people to be able to move the protein structure around and look underneath and above it and manipulate those structures to be able to see the physical nature of these molecules."

Dr. Craig understood that Collins did not have a lot of experience with the technology or computer science background—Collins described his coding ability in high school as "not even proficient" when he got a taste of programming through Project Lead The Way—but Craig knew that Collins had an end goal in mind, and together they charted a path to help him realize his goal.

"He was interested in how people could use technology in a beneficial way and that's what he approached me with. He thought what I was doing was neat. That way, it was going to open up a lot of opportunities to change the world, basically—to change society."

Collins started his Illinois academic career in engineering and computer science, but eventually found his way to psychology, which shaped the direction he has taken.

"In my academic life I've been interested in the technology side of things, but also the psychology stuff, so I feel like this was a great way to mingle those two and understand the human impact as well as the tech impact on the human experience," said Collins. "It's kind of cool knowing about all the science behind the VR and AR because it's made to trick your eyes into thinking you're seeing stuff that isn't really there. But then you say, 'well, what is really there?'"

About Blue Waters Student Internship Program

As part of the Blue Waters efforts to motivate and train the next generation of supercomputing researchers, the Blue Waters Student Internship Program is sponsoring about 20 undergraduate research interns each year. The goal is to engage undergraduate students in petascale computing research and development projects. The program provides each student a stipend totaling $5,000, a two-week intensive high-performance computing workshop, and an education allocation on the Blue Waters system. Select students will travel to the Blue Waters Symposium. This program includes support for undergraduate internship activities at any accredited degree granting institution in the United States. The internships awarded through this program may be for students working with a faculty mentor on their home campus, or at another campus. Interested faculty can work with a particular student that they identify, or may select a qualified student with Blue Waters support through the program. Students and faculty who are members of groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM are strongly encouraged to participate in the program.

About NCSA

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign provides supercomputing and advanced digital resources for the nation's science enterprise. At NCSA, University of Illinois faculty, staff, students, and collaborators from around the globe use advanced digital resources to address research grand challenges for the benefit of science and society. NCSA has been advancing one third of the Fortune 50 for more than 30 years by bringing industry, researchers, and students together to solve grand challenges at rapid speed and scale.

National Science Foundation

Blue Waters is supported by the National Science Foundation through awards ACI-0725070 and ACI-1238993.