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Meet NCSA’s Jim Phillips, former lead NAMD developer

You may not be familiar with one of NCSA’s most recent hires in the Blue Waters Project Office, Senior Research Programmer Jim Phillips, but you should. A long time NCSA collaborator coming to us from the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, Phillips is anything but new to the intricacies of NCSA.

Phillips first came to the University of Illinois in 1993 for his Ph.D. in Physics, in which he was supported by Hertz and the Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowships. During that time, he found his passion in supercomputing.

“I think I was always just attracted to the idea that supercomputers allowed you to do things that you simply couldn’t do on any other machine. I think that aligned well with Professor Schulten’s ambitions to do leadership-class biology,” Phillips recalled.

The late professor Klaus Schulten, who served as Phillips’ graduate advisor, encouraged Phillips to join his research group at Beckman, the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics group. It was in this capacity that Phillips began his work on a new parallel molecular dynamics code designed for high-performance simulation of large biomolecular systems, the Nanoscale Molecular Dynamics software, more commonly referred to as NAMD.

NAMD is one of the most widely used programs on Blue Waters as well as several other major supercomputing centers such as the Texas Advanced Computing Center, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, the San Diego Supercomputing Center, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory; where it enables atomic-resolution simulations of large biomolecular systems such as proteins, nucleic acids, and lipid membranes. NAMD was used to run one of Blue Waters’ earliest science projects, the HIV virus capsid simulation, in 2012. This simulation was conducted at a scale that had not yet been done before in biomolecular simulations, but was exactly the scale that Blue Waters was designed to support.

Phillips has worked on NAMD nearly since its inception in the early 1990s when he was a graduate student. In 1999, while finishing his Ph.D. (awarded 2002), he accepted a staff position as lead NAMD developer, a position he held until his transition to NCSA earlier this year.

In that role, Phillips coordinated NAMD development efforts and garnered experience as a software developer across generations of platforms at many different HPC organizations. He also had the opportunity to observe how scientific users interact with those platforms, including users here at the University of Illinois. In fact, he has collaborated with NCSA on nearly every supercomputer we’ve operated since the mid-1990s, and is ready to now sit on the opposite side of the table in his new role as Blue Waters’ Quality Assurance Lead.

“What I think makes me uniquely valuable to NCSA is that I have broad experience as a software developer across a wide variety of HPC platforms run by a variety of HPC organizations, as well as a lot of interaction with scientific users on those platforms. So I can bring both experience with how various issues have been addressed as well as a user perspective on how the ways the machine is run affect the scientific productivity of scientific users on the machine,” Phillips said.

Since starting with NCSA, Phillips’ time has been primarily devoted to developing concepts and ideas for NCSA’s future supercomputers, but he’s also had the chance to learn more about NCSA from an insider’s perspective and is excited about his future here at NCSA.

“Hopefully I’ll get to help build a couple generations of supercomputers and make them generate great science.”

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