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Meet Alaina Kanfer, NCSA’s Great Connector

Alaina Kanfer

NCSA recently welcomed back Alaina Kanfer. She spent some years at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology before coming back to us and working with the Healthcare Innovation Program Office. We spoke with her about her storied history at UIUC and the innovation that keeps drawing her back to this work.

Alaina Kanfer has been researching social networks since before the term took on a modern, decidedly technological meaning. When she was an undergrad, Kanfer studied mathematical social sciences and anthropology. She continued these studies as she finished her Ph.D. at the University of California, Irvine. While in California, she found clever ways to use her windsurfing hobby to further her intellectual curiosity for social networking. Windsurfers made for a unique group to study – they have their own lingo, their own way of passing information among the group and an intense need to keep up with weather conditions. It was a perfect group for a burgeoning anthropologist to study with regard to social networking. Kanfer wasn’t just competing in windsurfing regattas, she was gathering information on how a specific social network communicated.

“My graduate school advisor who I studied the windsurfers with was Linton C. Freeman. He was one of the founders of the field of social networks and [and an avid windsurfer][being a part of]. Windsurfing let me spend a lot of time with Lin in the car driving to the beach. We also studied the social structure of the windsurfers.”

Alaina and Lin carrying their boards, California, 1989.

Kanfer took this experience with her as she explored new areas of her field of study. She continued studying social networks and writing papers on them throughout the 90s while she finished up her postdoc work, and eventually joined NCSA. While working alongside Larry Smarr and Marc Andreessen, Eric Bina and Colleen Bushell, 

 Kanfer was keenly aware of how influential the work she was a part of would be.

“Back in the day, with Larry Smarr, and all that, I shared an office with Colleen Bushell and watched her literally design parts of the internet. She designed how we interact with it. So yes, I absolutely knew it was transformative,” she said. “That’s why I put all my energy into it.” 

Kanfer realized the importance of connecting these high-tech researchers with the people who would eventually become huge supporters of their work. In the early days of the internet, the idea that you would sit down at a computer and open an application that would allow you to access or share information hosted across the country, or even the world, in a visual way, not just text, was brand new to many. Imagine learning about a concept so revolutionary it would change the way societies behave. For many, the idea of the internet was science fiction. It wasn’t something they could model real-world solutions or projects off of. But Kanfer often describes herself as living in a world of science fiction in the work she does. She understood she would have to do some legwork to help people understand that what they thought of as fiction was quickly becoming a reality, and that new reality was going to open up a whole host of new opportunities for them.

“I did a lot of the training of community leaders on how the Internet worked and to get them to visualize how they could change things.”

Alaina Kanfer

Training and researching were only the beginning. Kanfer’s work would eventually evolve into connecting. After spending some time away from UIUC, Kanfer realized how much she missed living in the area. There’s a kind of irresistible pull to the Champaign-Urbana area – the university and the town leave an indelible mark on people when they live here. Many alumni make their way back to work here, often for the university. Kanfer was similarly drawn back by what she calls the UIUC vacuum effect.

“We lived in Minnesota for four years. We say we were on sabbatical, but we’re slow learners. And then we got sucked back in because you try and leave and you can’t because it is such a good place to live.”

Lin and Alaina windsurfing in California, 1989.

While the university is situated in a relatively mundane part of Illinois, flat and dotted with cornfields for miles and miles, there’s still special magic to the place. Kanfer likened the Champaign-Urbana area to an academic Hollywood of sorts.

“After we’d been away for a while, we really missed being here where you can go to the grocery store and see, like, Nigel Goldenfeld, or, you know, some, famous person and just learn what they’re working on with their research.”

She spoke about how people don’t just come to UIUC for their workday, then jet off somewhere more exciting on the weekends, or travel somewhere an hour away to have a fancy dinner on a weeknight. They come here out of a passion for their research, and they spend their free time here because of all the opportunities to collaborate with like-minded individuals. They enjoy their free time here because it’s filled with a diversity of ideas from all those who share that spirit of discovery. Cornfields don’t have to be dull, not if you’re among the right company.

“People are here because they want to be here. They love their work. They’re passionate about it. Here, when people want to move around and get more creative input, they cross disciplines. And so over someone’s 20- or 30-year career at the U of I, they are going around doing so many different things. And because of that, I keep coming back.”

When she came back to UIUC, she didn’t come right back to NCSA. Instead, Kanfer spent some years at the Institute for Genomic Biology. “I loved working at IGB. I was like a kid in a candy store when I started there.” Kanfer felt at the time that bioinformatics was the future. After discussing opportunities with Gene Robinson, the current director of IGB, Kanfer found a place there where she could thrive.

“I was thrilled because it gave me a chance to learn something about genomics. And so I loved it. And I did a lot of tours. I hosted a lot of donors and companies and program officers from NIH and so on.”

Soon enough, she was wooed back into the NCSA fold. Kanfer spoke at length about the atmosphere at NCSA and why this place is so special to her.

“What appeals to me about NCSA is I feel like it’s very unique from any other place on campus. Because it’s populated by a large number of very creative, very passionate, very smart, innovative people who are open-minded to new ideas. And that it’s almost like a self-organizing unit. Projects come and go pretty fast sometimes. And you can see the creativity build around a project. And any project that comes you can navigate through the intellectual space at NCSA and figure out how to tackle it. I love doing that. I love navigating knowledge networks, I love navigating human networks.”

Kanfer used her knowledge of social networks to her advantage. She became a connector at IGB and continues that work at NCSA. She bridges the gap between researchers and industry, finding creative ways to apply science to better society and humanity. “My goal, working at NCSA, is to really help these amazing, creative people to have a positive impact on the evolution of our society. I think we can do it.”

If you’re really looking at something complex, and learning some new field or new technique, or trying to develop some new innovation, strong interpersonal ties are really important for two reasons. One, strong ties are associated with a lot of time spent together. And you need a lot of time together to build common knowledge and to teach, but, and here’s the second reason, you also need trust. For scientists who are experts, it takes a lot to say, ‘I don’t understand, can you explain it to me or help me learn this field?’

Alaina Kanfer

Kanfer has experience doing this exact type of work prior to coming back to NCSA. She was involved with the Personalized Nutrition Initiative. Working with Professor Sharon Donovan and Anna Keck, they convinced 11 industry leaders to join their discussions. The initiative’s mission is to work collaboratively across disciplines to determine all the ways nutrition, or the lack of, affects our health. The end goal is to then take the findings that result from these discussions and share them with clinical care and the public.

“We wanted six partners to start with. We got seven. Who could turn Nestle away? And the second year, we hoped for three to five more partners. We got four more. So we now have 11 partners, and it’s very productive, very engaging with high-level people from Nestle, PepsiCo, General Mills, and others. All of them engaging at a very deep level on real issues about how we can help advance nutrition for their consumers. We were able to accomplish so much largely because Sharon Donovan is so well respected in the industry. It was also a lot of discussing with  the companies and figuring out what works best for them. I enjoy that very much.”

There’s a skill to connecting people. With Kanfer’s background in anthropology and research in social networks and sociology of science, she has deep insight into how people form relationships and how best to utilize these relationships to share knowledge and ideas.

“When I started atd IGB I met my friend, Dale, in facilities, and explained what my job to him.  He said, ‘Oh, you’re a connector.’ And it’s like, yup, I’m a chronic connector. I’m always trying to connect ideas and people.”

This love of connecting has made Kanfer very good at her job. She brings this connector expertise to NCSA and has already put it to work.

“One thing we’re working on now is the NIH issued Request for Information about programs that should be offered out of the NIH Common Fund. And together with Maria Jaromin in the Healthcare Innovation Program Office, we’re coordinating a response from NCSA to highlight how NIH has invested so much funding in building large databases, like the All of Us database, the Cancer Genome Atlas, the Nutrition for Precision Health.  We’re advocating that in order to optimize what we can learn from those large data repositories, they’re gonna need high-performance computing, and the expertise that comes with it at NCSA, and other national HPC centers. Part of what I hope to accomplish at NCSA, in addition to connecting with industry, is to help connect other scientists with the experts at NCSA in computation, networking, data engineering, analytics, AI, ML, modelling, simulation and visualization. By this I mean, working with government agencies and internally at the U of I – I want to help my colleagues over at IGB find collaborators at NCSA.”

Linton C Freeman windsurfing in California, 1989.

As we wound down the conversation, we came back to the windsurfing. You don’t meet many windsurfers in Illinois. I was curious how she felt about living here. Is the intellectual largess at the university enough to make up for the lack of oceans? In a landlocked state, did Kanfer miss windsurfing in the Pacific, being near mountains and the ocean?

“I don’t feel landlocked. I would feel claustrophobic in the mountains. I don’t like mountains as much as I like the wide open. I love looking out at the prairie -it’s kind of like the ocean – where I can walk for miles on end and just see the horizon line, notice the details without much distraction. Of course, my husband helped me to see the beauty of the prairie.”

Kanfer’s husband, Larry Kanfer, is a photographer and is also from the area. He studied architecture at UIUC and opened a gallery. The two of them collaborated on several books of photography. One such book is a collection of photographs of the UIUC campus called Illini Loyalty. When asked the final question, if Kanfer has a favorite space on campus, she shakes her head.

“I like it all. I like the old observatory, the libraries, the third floor conference room at the IGB. I especially love walking around on campus and seeing all the people. I just love campus.”

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