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Five years of fellows: Celebrating the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ (NCSA) Blue Waters project, located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign marked the fifth year of the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship program last month with the introduction of 2018 cadre of Graduate Fellows.

Since its inception, the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship has allowed graduate students from all over the country an opportunity to explore some of the world’s toughest problems backed by the power of the Blue Waters supercomputer and the project’s domain expertise.

The introduction of this year’s class of fellows, however, is particularly significant—they are Blue Waters’ fifth class of Graduate Fellows, marking a half-decade of sustained success for the prestigious program, which continues a reputation for being one of the most competitive and rewarding fellowships in supercomputing. This year’s fellows will join the 36 fellows that have participated in the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship program since 2014.

Each year, about 100 applicants vie for the Graduate Fellowship, which is supported by the National Science Foundation. Only around 10 percent of applicants are selected each year. This large amount of interest, regardless of a prospective applicant’s physical location, is due in part to the unique nature of the program itself—which offers not only a considerable amount of computational resources, but also a designated staff that is integral to the success of Graduate Fellows.

“The Blue Waters professional staff is extremely skilled and helpful,” said Sherwood Richers, a 2016 Blue Waters Graduate Fellow. “My point of contact helped me determine areas in my code I could optimize and suggested a route forward. The point of contact works in the same field and with some of the same software, which makes communication infinitely more efficient than it would be with somebody without that background.”

The fellowship’s focus on supporting computational research with access to robust high-performance computing resources is a relative rarity in research, especially for a graduate student. With Blue Waters, however, Graduate Fellows are able to apply NCSA’s sustained-petascale system to their research, unlocking a plethora of possibilities.

“It’s incredibly fulfilling to be able to witness the quality of research advances afforded by a full year of focused research with access to one of the most powerful high-performance computing systems available for research in the country,” said Scott Lathrop, the Blue Waters Program Manager for Education, Outreach and Training. “And when they move on, it’s fulfilling to hear about their tremendous success with publications and their subsequent careers in academia, industry and government.”

Over the past five years, the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship program has tacked problems both cosmic and microscopic in scale thanks to vast computational capabilities. This year’s class, alone, will study everything from star formation in dwarf galaxies to airflow in the human lung, bringing us closer to understanding a diverse array of complex science. Past fellows have examined rainforest ecosystems, seaweed and volcanic plumes, giving them vital experience, regardless of subject matter, that they could not have gotten on any university campus in the United States.

“Through the Fellowship I expanded my computational and analytical skills sets as a supercomputer user, and I was exposed to various HPC concepts and techniques—opportunities which were not afforded to me through my curriculum in graduate school,” said Justin Drake, a 2015 Fellow from the University of Texas. “In terms of taking the next step in my research career, the fellowship (and its reputation) demonstrates not only my unique technical skills as a supercomputer user but also the ability to successfully secure funding for my research, which I believe sets me, as a Blue Waters Fellow, apart from the competition.”

For more information on our fellows through the years, check out our “Blue Waters: Five Years of Fellows” profile series on Facebook, where we chat with a few past fellows about the impact that the Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship had on their research. A complete list of Blue Waters Graduate Fellows can be found here.

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.

About NCSA’s Blue Waters project

The Blue Waters petascale supercomputer is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Blue Waters uses hundreds of thousands of computational cores to achieve peak performance of more than 13 quadrillion calculations per second. With 1.5 petabytes of memory, Blue Waters has faster data storage than any other open system in the world. Scientists and engineers across the country use the computing and data power of Blue Waters to tackle a wide range of interdisciplinary challenges. Recent advances that were not possible without these resources include computationally designing the rst set of antibody prototypes to detect the Ebola virus, simulating the HIV capsid, visualizing the formation of the first galaxies and exploding stars, and understanding how the layout of a city can impact supercell thunderstorms.

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