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NCSA Student Spotlight: Antonio Abinader

Fate played a role in Antonio Abinader’s success as a student at the University of Illinois. The instructor for his very first class at the university was Dr. Volodymyr Kindratenko, a researcher in NCSA’s Computing and Data Sciences group and an assistant professor of computer science. By pure coincidence, Kindratenko was Antonio’s academic advisor. When Antonio asked him about any job opportunities involving cloud computing, Kindratenko immediately mentioned NCSA’s SPIN (Students Pushing Innovation) internship program, which pairs undergraduates with an NCSA mentor to tackle a hands-on research project in areas such as supercomputing, data analytics, visualization, and more.

“Before coming to Illinois, I had no idea the campus hosted one of the major centers for supercomputing in the world so when I learned about SPIN, the only thing on my mind was that I had to work there. The amount of knowledge coupled with the power of the machines at NCSA nurtures a unique environment where researchers make real progress in several fields of study while students learn invaluable skills aiding their mentors,” Antonio wrote in an email.

Antonio applied for and was accepted to a SPIN internship, and the summer of his sophomore year found him working on cloud computing with Kindratenko as his mentor. Antonio implemented a production-ready installation of OpenStack for internal use at NCSA. He then followed on to develop a solution to allow researchers to allocate Jupyter Notebooks using a scheduler on existing NCSA clusters such as Nano. This past spring semester Antonio worked on two projects: his original OpenStack project and a deep-learning project with Aiman Soliman of NCSA Industry’s data analytics group. Under Soliman’s guidance, Anonio researched technologies to facilitate the detection of geographical features from LIDAR satellite imagery using deep-learning frameworks such as Tensorflow.

The SPIN internship was a valuable part of his student experience, allowing him to develop real-world career skills and confidence.

“After interning for two years, I can say with confidence that NCSA gives their SPIN students the best environment to learn new skills. Illinois is a great school, so regarding classical knowledge it’s hard to say that my internship didn’t complement my learning in school and vice-versa. However, at NCSA I learned how to solve real technical problems that don’t appear in the classroom, such as dealing with people trying to invade our systems and performing critical server maintenance without downtime,” he wrote in an email.

“The technical knowledge is unparalleled,” he continued, “but I would also like to focus on the soft skills I learned, such as how to collaborate in a group setting and coordinate work with several departments such that bigger projects can be achieved. Another very important aspect was time management, it’s incredibly hard to hold a job while studying in one of the finest engineering schools in the world.”

It was the development of those soft skills that he credits with feeling confident during the interview process as he looks toward his future. And he knows that he will bring any future employer skills he polished during SPIN—how to speak in public through various meetings with mentors and teammates, and lightning talks, where he learned how to present ideas in a coherent and organized way to deliver updates to fellow interns and researchers.

“And of course, technical skills,” he wrote. “The SPIN internship taught me systems administration and design skills, but besides that, I honed my programming skills.”

But the best part of the SPIN internship?

“The internship pairs students with world class researchers on cutting edge projects,” explains Antonio. “It gives you a chance to learn from your mentor in a one-to-one setting which is virtually impossible if you’re in a classroom. The mix between academia and industry is amazing; while I tried new techniques in my cloud project, I also had to maintain other installations to support researchers at NCSA. It helped me develop new skills but also to improve what was learned in the classroom.”

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