People to Watch 2023 – Mark Stickells

Mark Stickells

Executive Director, Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre

Congratulations on your selection as a 2023 HPCwire Person to Watch. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is getting closer and closer to reality. How is Pawsey preparing for its arrival, and how tight is the interaction between the planning for Australia’s supercomputing and Australia’s radio telescopes?

Construction of the SKA will commence this year and Pawsey will host the high-performance compute and data analysis capability needed to operate this exascale science project. It’s one of the most ambitious science initiatives in the world — decades in the planning, multiple agencies providing support, a genuine intergovernmental project — but it can’t achieve its goals without the power of supercomputers and the expertise of facilities like ours.

So this year, we will pilot some of the early-stage hardware and software tools that need to be developed for the full-scale SKA, in partnership with the international scientific observatory and other collaborators, working closely with them to be able to test the process of ingesting, analysing and visualising data.

Pawsey is named after a pioneering physicist and computer scientist and continues to innovate in terms of the HPC architecture that supports advanced radio astronomy. While we’ll achieve some key milestones in 2023, it will take years to meet the ambitious goals of the SKA project. The science of radio astronomy and advances in HPC continue to spur each other to new levels — it’s why this is such an exciting field to support. It’s a field that delivered WIFI to the world and promises to unlock fundamental questions of our universe. It’s an honour to play a part in this advanced scientific domain at Pawsey.

Congratulations on the launch of Setonix! How is the new system transforming work at Pawsey and for Australia?

Thank you! It’s been a busy couple of years trying to install a supercomputer in a far-flung corner of Australia, in the midst of a pandemic, with locked borders, supply chain challenges and a labour shortage — but we are very excited to now have Setonix moving to full capacity.

I genuinely believe this is a transformational moment for HPC in Australia.

From the moment we began piloting research on Setonix we started getting amazing results — I think we started to process data from CSIRO’s ASKAP radio telescope in the first 24 hours and the immediate result was a highly detailed image of a supernova remnant. It’s incredible to think that is just the beginning.

When I look across our university and public sector research partners, you can see what a difference the additional capacity and compute power will make.

Last year we had researchers from three-quarters of the country’s universities using our systems in some way, on critical, high-impact projects. Now, we can offer those partners the 15th fastest and 4th greenest research supercomputer in the world. This year, we’ll extend support to new domains and research fields, helping to unlock the power of HPC to support and accelerate discovery.

The traditional HPC market is undergoing substantial change, most notably blending in AI technologies – with quantum possibly on the horizon. Where do you see HPC headed? What trends – and in particular emerging trends – do you find most notable? Any areas you are concerned about, or identify as in need of more attention/investment?

I think this is an exciting moment for HPC, but also one in which the work we do will receive more scrutiny than in the past. There is a lot of attention on the advances being made and with that will come criticism unless we adapt, innovate and improve the way we work.

The most obvious challenge is the need to address the environmental impact of HPC — we can’t expect to escape the criticism being levelled at other energy inefficient sectors.

For us, this has been a ten-year journey with a long way to go. When we first developed Pawsey at our current facilities, we used novel geothermal cooling technology and this has proved to be critical in our ability to reduce our energy footprint.

We are now commissioning a system that is one of the most energy efficient in the world, and are looking at a future with emerging energy options such as hydrogen and batteries. For us to be at the leading edge of HPC sustainability, we have committed to looking at every element of our operation, from building design, HPC architecture, right down to helping researchers optimize their code, so they can reduce the energy impact of inefficient algorithms.

The second big shift is in technology.

In 2022, we unveiled the first room-temperature quantum accelerator. This year we will be extending our quantum computing initiatives and contributing to some of the Australian strategic planning in this field.

With AI in the news, we can see whole sectors that might not have previously used HPC suddenly recognising the value of machine learning, massive data sets and access to large-scale compute power.

As each change rolls through, (and writing this from a state with some of the best beaches in the world!) we anticipate and ride the wave, extend our reach beyond traditional borders and demonstrate the value HPC brings in addressing the most pressing questions of our time.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM and what advice would you give to young people wishing to follow in your footsteps?

I’ve taken a slightly unconventional path to my leadership role at Pawsey and I like to think of my career as STEAM with the A for Arts rather than just STEM, as I’m more of a technology advocate rather than a technology expert. I enjoy opportunities to bring the creative arts together with technology, or working with different disciplines in novel partnerships as I’ve seen very positive things happen at the intersection of disciplines or between areas that might not appear to have issues in common. I like to think of myself as a translator and connector, as well as an innovator.

I’ve had a 30-year career working in and with universities, engaging with scientists and researchers, and my role at Pawsey is not only Chief Executive but Chief Evangelist.

I think the beauty of our sector is that if you are curious and have an appetite to keep learning you can build a fascinating career. Every day is a new discovery. We support science and research that can change lives, support communities, and tackle questions from the human scale to the planetary scale. It’s humbling, exciting and a privilege to work in the world of HPC. Honestly, not enough people know how cool it is and the more advocates and champions for the work of our scientists, researchers and experts in HPC the better!

Outside of the professional sphere, what can you tell us about yourself – unique hobbies, favourite places, etc.? Is there anything about you your colleagues might be surprised to learn?

I’ve always believed that education can transform lives and it’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about how Pawsey engages not just with universities but with schools and students as well.

I was the first in my family to go to university — I wrote my Honours Dissertation over 30 years ago on gender representation in James Joyce’s Ulysses — that may surprise a few of your readers! I’ve completed other graduate studies including an MBA and a couple of graduate diplomas since. I’m a keen photographer and love visiting new places with a camera in hand and taking a walking tour with a local guide. A career in research and science has provided me with the opportunity to visit many places around the world. I can’t pick a favourite — that would be unfair, particularly as I’m fortunate to live in one of the nicest cities on the planet!

It’s been a privilege for me to work in this field and I want to open the door for the next generation of students who can find their careers in HPC. I’m also keen to increase the diversity of representation in our industry – and believe in recruiting for talent and aptitude, and training for some of the more specific skills needed in HPC – this will improve the productivity, innovation and quality of our sector.

People to Watch 2023

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