As a dedicated professor, mentor, researcher, and renowned expert in her field, Dr. Tabbetha A. Dobbins was an excellent fit for her new role as Interim VP for Research and Dean of the Graduate School in the Division of University Research at Rowan University. “An outstanding, nationally recognized scientist in materials science, Dr. Dobbins is a passionate educator whose research and teaching emphasizes the engagement of underrepresented populations in STEM,” says Rowan University President, Ali A. Houshmand. “She is a 2009 recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, and has been awarded more than $2 million in research funding since 2003.”
Dobbins began her new role last summer, in the midst of a long list of pandemic-caused challenges. “From 2018 to 2020, I served as provost fellow for research, and part of my duties included leading the return to research initiative,” shares Dobbins. “Last March, we all left the research labs and campus buildings to go remote. Not wanting to wait until fall to bring researchers back to campus, we drafted a return plan for researchers targeted for May/June. While actual return dates were delayed, by the end of July, we had a good number of researchers back in their labs with new social distancing rules and schedules in place.”
Facilitating In-Person Research
Along with her mission of facilitating and enhancing research activities across the institution and serving as Rowan’s representative on external research boards, Dobbins is also a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and guides students in both undergraduate and graduate research projects. Her research centers on applying synchrotron X-ray and neutron analysis to modern engineering problems in polymer self-assembly, gold nanoparticles, carbon nanotubes, and the hydrogen fuel economy. Dobbins recently won NSF support to study and mitigate the effects of university closures due to COVID-19 on African American undergraduate students of physics. The project builds on her earlier efforts as part of the American Institute of Physics National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy, or TEAM-UP.
Knowing how invaluable working together can be for both students and faculty, Dobbins’ current focus includes determining the best methods for facilitating in-person research going forward for Rowan’s summer research programs. “The majority of student research programs last summer were remote,” says Dobbins. “For this summer, we are looking at plans that can bring undergraduate students back into the lab. The learning mode is completely different in person and while remote capabilities are extremely valuable, there is such an immense training and learning benefit when a student can work side by side with a faculty member.”
Gathering Input and Insight
Upon learning about the funding opportunities through the NSF Cybersecurity Innovation for Cyberinfrastructure (CICI) program, Dobbins began taking a closer look at collaborative science and ways to get a finger on the pulse of Rowan’s interdisciplinary research needs. “I began speaking with those in academic leadership to determine how to further evolve the University’s research initiatives,” shares Dobbins. “The Rowan University Research Counsel is comprised of deans and associate deans who represent the interests of faculty members in the research labs. In meeting with these individuals, I have learned there is a great need for staffing support to help students add high performance computing (HPC) accounts and software. This responsibility is often distributed among faculty members and can be very time consuming. I have also discovered that computation research changes very quickly, and while our HPC facility is only five years old, we must look at ways to keep progressing in an ever-changing computing age.”
To determine how to best advance Rowan’s computation research, Dobbins is bringing together faculty members to hear firsthand the challenges they are facing and what solutions would be helpful. “After gathering initial information from faculty, I bring in guest speakers to broaden our understanding of what options are available,” shares Dobbins. “For example, Amazon Web Services came in January to speak to the researchers about a 100-percent cloud-based solution, helping to eliminate the need for personnel to manage accounts and software. Then using a post-presentation survey, I gather faculty feedback on whether they think the solution is something they would use and if they anticipate the solution being good for students.”
Dobbins has also met with the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) who provides state-of-the-art infrastructure for computationally intensive research. The MGHPCC operates as a joint venture between Harvard University, Boston University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and the University of Massachusetts and is open for use by any research organization. “MGHPCC offers an educational program that creates a career cyberteam that employs two students per institution to help solve HPC problems,” explains Dobbins. “The student serves as an interface between a research group who wants to access the HPC and those who are experts at loading and running the program.”
Growing Research Cyberinfrastructure
The insight gathered from Rowan researchers will continue to shape the University’s vision for advanced cyberinfrastructure and tailor solutions to meet their unique needs. “I’m excited to hear from some vendors that we can have cloud-based access to HPC on demand and they can also interface with the existing computers that we have on campus,” says Dobbins. “Many faculty members have also started purchasing smaller networks for their own individual labs, so the solutions we select must be innovative and agile. For instance, we must provide the ability for a researcher to use their in-house system when needed, but also can scale up when faster computing or more memory is needed; this flexibility is essential.”
Improving cyberinfrastructure also requires creating a solid business model and determining how to fund all the needed solutions for faculty and researchers. “I envision a mix-and-match solution based upon computing requirements and academic and classroom usage,” explains Dobbins. “An example business model may be the University provides a core set of services, but then individual grants provide specialty services or advanced features in the cloud. Once the grant has expired or the funding for that portion of a researcher’s work is used, then that cloud service is no longer available.”
Supporting Collaborative Research
Included on the invitation list for Dobbin’s multidisciplinary group is Dr. Forough Ghahramani, Edge’s Associate Vice President for Research, Innovation, and Sponsored Programs. “Edge has been an incredible resource for us and Dr. Ghahramani and I are in constant communication about Rowan’s research goals and giving students exposure to career pathways in high performance computing,” says Dobbins. “So far, I’ve been pulling together faculty and holding meetings with outside entities that can help us to meet our research goals, but this is not ideal, since I have many areas where I need to focus my attention. We are hoping to win the NSF Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*) planning grant to help us conduct these fact-finding sessions on a much larger scale. Through this grant, we would appoint Dr. Ghahramani and her staff to manage these types of focus groups and surveys to gather the valuable information that we need.”
As Rowan began pursuing the CC* grant, the University realized they could become a collaborative regional resource, already having relationships with nearby county colleges, like Rowan College at South Jersey and Rowan College at Burlington County. “So much infrastructure already exists that can help connect industry and academia, such as Edge and the Commission on Science, Innovation and Technology (CSIT) through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA),” says Dobbins. “Our prior goals were predominantly inward-focused, looking at what solutions we can find for ourselves. Now, I’m looking to build more robust partnerships and find solutions that will impact not just Rowan researchers, but will also help advance research initiatives at our partner institutions and within the broader research community.”
To strengthen your connectivity to the research community and learn how to access advanced computing resources, explore EdgeDiscovery at njedge.net/edge-discovery.