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Maria Jaromin Brings Together People, Tools and Resources to Make Research Pay Off

Portrait of Maria Jaromin

When Maria Jaromin reflects on her career in engineering and technology, it’s the people and their wide range of scientific interests that stand out, as well as efforts to translate their work into businesses and practical solutions to problems.

As the senior research coordinator in NCSA’s Healthcare Innovation Program Office (HIPO), interacting with diverse scientists to advance research remains at the forefront of her work. She collaborates closely with HIPO Director Colleen Bushell and Alaina Kanfer, assistant director for strategic partnerships in the Center’s Industry Partner Program, to connect university researchers with computational resources and a wide range of data science expertise at NCSA. As a key member of the HIPO team, she consults with researchers to shepherd their engagement with NCSA and offers guidance to those whose work holds promise for commercialization.

Part of her role involves introducing research scientists to Nightingale, NCSA’s newest high-performance compute cluster that provides a regulated environment for sensitive data and complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for keeping health data safe and secure. In addition, she helps to form collaborative teams in the areas of AI, image analysis, visualization and software development and she engages with units across campus to identify new opportunities for NCSA to support and enable healthcare research. 

Jaromin came to NCSA in 2021 from the University’s Office of Technology Management (OTM), where she spent more than four years, first as a commercialization analyst and later as technology manager for the physical sciences. At OTM, she assessed the patentability and market potential of University inventions, made patenting decisions, promoted technologies to potential licensees, negotiated legal agreements and educated researchers about intellectual property and technology transfer. 

Jaromin’s experience at OTM and her previous work in engineering and research made her a natural fit for the position in HIPO under the leadership of Bushell. Like Bushell, who began her career as a tenured professor of graphic design at UIUC, Jaromin’s path to becoming HIPO’s research coordinator was not a straight line but involved several stops along the way and moves from her native Poland to Sweden and then the United States about a decade ago.

Broad Interests and Collaborative Work Environments

Jaromin is an engineer by training with bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in power engineering from Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice, Poland and a licentiate of engineering (a postgraduate degree offered in some European countries) in energy technology from the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden. 

As a high school student, I had very broad interests. I was really strong in math and physics, so engineering seemed like a great application of both and very practical.

Maria Jaromin, NCSA research coordinator

Jaromin’s father, Norbert Jaromin, is a retired mechanical engineer who designed and helped deploy large fans used in industry and power plants. She was fascinated by the complexity of the massive power plants that her dad visited as part of his work and developed an interest in engineering applications to solve energy and environmental problems. As a college student in the Department of Energy and Environmental Engineering, she focused her studies on power engineering and on modeling processes and systems that could provide energy safely and efficiently. 

Her work involved a lot of computational fluid dynamic (CFD) modeling to understand fluid flow and heat transfer in nuclear reactors. For her master’s thesis, she created detailed models of the two-phase flow in boiling water nuclear reactors (BWRs), which helped to verify safety margins for BWR fuel bundles. As a researcher at KTH (2010-2012), she worked with scientists from 11 countries on the European Union Collaborative Project on Thermal-Hydraulics of Innovative Nuclear Systems. She conducted a theoretical and computational study on the onset of heat transfer deterioration in supercritical-water-cooled reactors (SCWRs).

“In the early 2000s, researchers started working on developing the fourth generation of nuclear reactors. It was an exciting time to be in this field; to be together with others and share information,” she said. “In academia, nuclear engineering is a very collaborative domain. People are always very willing to share their knowledge.”

In 2014, Jaromin left Europe to join her husband, Tomasz Kozlowski, who was a faculty member at the University of Illinois in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering. She took a position as a research engineer at the university’s Applied Research Institute (ARI) in the modeling and simulation group led by Santanu Chaudhuri (now at Argonne National Laboratory).

“I worked on multiple projects for corporate and government clients,” she recalled. The work involved much more than modeling and simulation and Jaromin delved into proposal writing, scoping projects, safe handling of proprietary data and understanding export controls.

“During my time at ARI, I learned a lot about technology readiness and commercialization. I realized how important it is to have a whole structure to enable research,” she said. “I started shifting my career to focus on technology commercialization, building collaborations and compliance issues.”

Allowing Scientists to Focus on Science 

Her role at ARI sparked the need to continue developing a skill set that goes beyond technical expertise. That led Jaromin to the next step in her career path: She enrolled in the full-time MBA program at the University’s Gies College of Business. Her focus was on business strategy, innovation and translation of research into commercial endeavors.

Jaromin continued working part-time at ARI in the first year of the MBA program and accepted a position at OTM in the summer of 2017. She started at OTM as a commercialization analyst, determining the commercialization potential and the patentability of University inventions from a variety of disciplines. 

“The breadth of interest that I’d had since I was a child could be put to use at OTM.”

She then became technology manager for the physical sciences, where she managed a portfolio of more than 300 engineering and physical science technologies developed by University faculty and research staff. She assessed market potentials, made patenting decisions, prepared and negotiated legal agreements, and educated University researchers on intellectual property, the technology transfer process and University resources for the formation of startup companies.

“At OTM, we had a great team. My colleagues both pushed me professionally and made it a pleasure to be at work every day,” she said. “I’m especially grateful to my supervisors and mentors, Steve Wille, Nate Hoffmann and Svetlana Sowers, for teaching me everything I know about technology transfer.”

Introducing Nightingale to the University Community

In the first year of the pandemic, Jaromin began talking to Bushell about an opportunity with her group at NCSA.

 “I met Colleen during our time at ARI and consider her one of the most creative and visionary people that I know. I was very excited at the prospect of working together.” At that time, NCSA HIPO was newly established and the Center was working to deploy a new high-performance, HIPAA-compliant compute cluster called Nightingale.  

NCSA saw Nightingale as a system that could enable new projects and collaborations, especially between University researchers and clinicians, and healthcare organizations. Jaromin, with a background in science and engineering, a deep understanding of the components of collaborative research and connections across campus because of her previous work, was the right person at the right time to start building connections for that program office, get the word out about Nightingale and help health researchers get started using NCSA’s capabilities.

“I understand research and the different components of research,” she said. “I’d already worked on compliance issues. I had been managing relationships and was used to becoming familiar with all kinds of scientific work.”

Nightingale, named for the famed nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale, launched in the summer of 2021 and provides standard batch computing and allocation on interactive nodes for GPU or CPU usage. The system was built in-house and stemmed naturally from the development about seven years ago of the Advanced Computational Health Enclave (ACHE) at  NCSA, an environment with restricted physical and electronic access used for collaborations with Mayo Clinic and other users who work with sensitive data. In addition to sensitive health data, Nightingale can also be used to store and process controlled unclassified information (CUI), commercial data, data protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and other types of personally identifiable information.

As Nightingale nears its second birthday, Jaromin said demand has been growing. The system still hosts data from the SHIELD program, the university’s COVID-19 saliva test and protocol developed to protect the campus community during the early stages of the pandemic. In addition to users in biomedical fields, the system has attracted users from the School of Social Work, who work with Medicaid datasets and the College of Business, who utilize sensitive commercial data. 

“The hope is that Nightingale will enable new kinds of projects and collaborations, especially collaborations between researchers and clinicians and healthcare organizations, but the need goes well beyond healthcare,” said Jaromin.

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