NCSA Industry Conference Recap – Part 1

By Elizabeth Leake (STEM-Trek)

October 31, 2018

Part two of this conference recap is featured in EnterpriseTech.

Industry Program Director Brendan McGinty welcomed guests to the annual National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Industry Conference, October 9-11 in Urbana, Illinois. One hundred eighty from 40 organizations registered for the invitation-only, two-day event. The program opened with a keynote address by Steven J. Demuth, chief technology officer at Mayo Clinic.

Steven Demuth (Mayo Clinic); Photo by NCSA Media Relations

As a physics major at Luther College in the ‘70’s, Demuth “fell into a computer science class where we had to develop simulations using a system that had about 128k of RAM; the grid only had four cells.”  Since then, his career path has become increasingly technical as he oversaw administrative computing and technical strategy in various leadership roles for academia, business and industry.

US News and World Report placed Mayo first on the 2018-19 Best Hospitals Honor Roll. “It has been focusing on the toughest medical challenges faced by humanity for more than 100 years,” Demuth said. It now has a footprint in five states and serves 1.3 million admitted and 4.9 million outpatients. Its online medical resource received 394 million unique visits last year. Mayo is defined by unparalleled expertise and an interdisciplinary team approach to diagnostics and patient care.

The relationship between computational science and medicine has evolved to where patient-care decisions and drug design discovery now rely on advanced computation and big data. Demuth described situations where it would be detrimental to the patient if a physical biopsy were conducted, for example, invasive brain tumors. Today, non-invasive, predictive analyses are informed by patients’ genetic makeup, leading to safer and earlier detection, and more effective treatment. The science of genomics allows physicians to predict outcomes and provide personalized care, which is the basis for Mayo’s relationship with NCSA where much of its genomic computation is managed.

“Machines are getting better at helping physicians see what  they need to know,” said Demuth. There is now less trial-and-error involved with the time-consuming task of understanding a patient’s history and choosing from what can often be a broad range of prospective treatments. He concluded by saying, “Mayo isn’t practicing medicine computationally; we’re practicing better medicine through advanced computation.” He added, “The expertise provided by NCSA is important to our interdisciplinary team approach.”

Industry Program Assistant Director Brian Seiler described the technical resources housed in the 88,000 square-foot National Petascale Computing Facility.

Seiler worked for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) in various technical roles for about 13 years prior to joining the NCSA Industry team in 2017. After 18 months on the job, he offered a positive endorsement of the workplace, by stating, “NCSA is a great place to work, with great people who are doing great things!”

Technical Assistant Director and Research Professor of Mechanical Engineering Seid Koric provided details about NCSA’s history. Founded in 1985 as one of five pioneer supercomputing centers funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), “High Performance Computing (HPC) for industry was always part of NCSA Founding Director Larry Smarr’s vision since he recognized the need to remain globally competitive as European stakeholders had begun to support industrial HPC,” said Koric. Since then, the NCSA Industry Program has become the largest of its kind.

UIUC and its 1,783-acre campus are home to NCSA and its flagship supercomputer, Blue Waters, a Cray XE6 system supported by NSF and UIUC. Blue Waters is one of the fastest computers in the world, and the largest hosted on a university campus. As for speed, it was described on the NCSA website, “If you could multiply two numbers together every second, it would take you millions of years to do what Blue Waters does each second.” This year, UIUC supported cyberinfrastructure with an additional  $10 million investment.

Industry partners have access to Blue Waters, an industry-dedicated supercomputer called iForge, and a new data analytics system named aForge. Collaborators have the potential to engage with ~50,000 students in 150 programs of study and more than 10,000 faculty and staff. The UIUC Research Park located on campus houses more than 110 businesses; also, one of the largest of its kind. Their presence provides UIUC students with additional employment opportunities, and a chance to contribute to real-world problem solving. Not only does this benefit the industries located there, it enhances the educational experience in ways that look great on student résumés.

The September 2018 U.S. News and World Report ranked the UIUC Engineering Physics program second and its Civil and Environmental Engineering programs third. Initially named, “Illinois Industrial University,” UIUC was an early land grant institution founded in 1867 when ~90 percent of Americans earned a living from agriculture. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that UIUC Agricultural Sciences also rank high, and a range of industries involved with the production of food, feed, fiber and fuel rely on NCSA to supply the technology and expertise that drives agricultural innovation, including John Deere, Hatch Ag, ExxonMobil, Syngenta Agrochemical and FMC Corporation, to name a few. A full list of partners is available on the NCSA Industry website.

A unique suite of resources is available to partners through the NCSA Advanced Visualization Laboratory. The “Viz Team” is led by Donna Cox (Director and Visualization Research Designer); a creative thought-leader whose career has evolved with the program since its inception. She developed an interdisciplinary and unparalleled approach to multimedia visual problem-solving, and her team has produced content for IMAX theatres, full-domed planetariums and legislative reports. In May 2016, she presented a production titled, “Solar Superstorm,” to a congressional panel. This NSF-supported visualization was narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, and was co-produced by Spitz Creative Media, NCSA’s Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois, and Thomas Lucas Productions, in association with Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Much of the Viz Team’s magic stems from the synergy they foster with UIUC’s fine arts program. Several team members were either graduates of that program or served as fine arts faculty. Two have computer science degrees, but with art and design backgrounds. Another attended film school at the University of Texas at Austin and taught animation at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Their presence ensures that cyberinfrastructure will always be part of the campus visual culture toolkit.

David Bock (NCSA Lead Visualization Programmer; UIUC MFA Graphic Design), who works with the NCSA Data Analysis and Visualization group, presented a variety of selections from their portfolio that communicate complex concepts in the simplest visual terms so that even children can understand why science and technology are important to them. One breathtaking example, processed with Blue Waters and 1.8 billion grid-points, illustrated a tornado-producing thunderstorm in ways that human eyes would never be able to observe.

Colleen Bushell (NCSA); Photo by E. Leake

The UIUC Division of Intercollegiate Athletics commissioned a virtual reality module that will be used to improve player training, awareness and responsiveness. It will also illustrate the opposition’s weaknesses and identify performance trends worthy of further exploration.

NCSA Senior Research Scientist Colleen Bushell taught in the UIUC Graphic Design BFA program for ten years before joining NCSA. She explained how the value of artificial intelligence (AI) is improved through visual intelligence.  “We engage undergraduate, graduate and medical students through a programmatic approach to visual problem-solving,” said Bushell. “This increases the energy level and creativity in our group,” she added.

NCSA Electrical and Computing Engineer Stephen Boppart works with Bushell’s group to develop tools for software engineers, viz designers and mathematicians who specialize in machine learning. “We exploit interdisciplinary strengths to shape applications in a nontraditional way,” he said. They’ve incorporated aspects of a popular gaming platform so that the interface will be familiar to a broader range of prospective customers, and therefore easier to learn. A commonly-used photo editing software was adapted to train their models.

Mayo Clinic uses the NCSA OmiX Microbiome Analysis Framework to help scientists, doctors and patients understand gut microbiome and its relationship to human health. Their risk visualization tool helps patients understand diagnoses; how their quality of life is expected to change, for example. Another app, also used by Mayo Clinic and the Illinois Department of Public Health, helps patients adhere to a prescribed health regimen and reports symptoms to their physician.

Read part two of the NCSA Industry Conference recap in EnterpriseTech, including highlights from NCSA Director William Gropp’s keynote, an overview of NCSA domain expertise and customer testimonials from the “Partnership Panel.”

Thank you, sponsors!

The NCSA Industry Conference was sponsored by Amazon Web Services, Cray, DataDirect Networks, Dell, Intel, and Panasas.


NCSA Industry Program Director Brendan McGinty led corporate engagement for the UIUC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for two years prior to joining NCSA in 2017.

Through his work for UIUC LA&S and from previously-held roles, McGinty accumulated a wealth of local, state and international relationships, and acquired road-tested business development, strategic vision and ed-tech experience.

As conference master of ceremonies, McGinty conveyed enthusiasm for community engagement and a sincere interest in helping industry stakeholders increase competitiveness through the adoption of advanced cyberinfrastructure and data science.

Feature image caption: “Solar plasma interacting with earth’s magnetic field,” an image captured from the NCSA Advanced Viz Lab’s Solar Superstorm film.

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