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TCNJ Energizing Computational Research and Education through Enhanced Technology

By March 4, 2020 No Comments

The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) is recognized as one of the top comprehensive colleges in the nation, maintaining the seventh highest four-year graduation rate among all public colleges and universities. With a longstanding commitment to faculty-student collaboration, TCNJ has received national attention for the expansion of the College’s undergraduate research program. In 2015, TCNJ was recognized by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) as a preeminent national college/university for undergraduate research. “TCNJ students have tremendous experiences conducting authentic research and have exposure to research in their basic curriculum and through one-on-one and small group apprenticeships with their faculty mentors,” shares Dr. Jeffrey M. Osborn, Dean of the School of Science.

High achievement and scholarship in the classroom are enhanced by TCNJ’s commitment to innovative technology and meeting the evolving high-tech needs of the student population. “TCNJ has similar challenges to many institutions, including keeping up with the demand of students’ expectations, especially with technology,” says Sharon E. Blanton, Ph.D., Chief Information Officer, Vice President for Information Technology and Campus Safety. “We never want IT to be a barrier to learning, teaching, or research, and staying ahead of the technology curve can be difficult. The College also strives to present training opportunities for faculty, staff, and students that allow the best and highest use of technology TCNJ can provide.”

Through the years, Blanton has seen the role of IT change, becoming a fundamental piece of the institution and within the business of higher education. “In the past, IT was a separate entity that only certain people were involved in, and now the department is much more core to everything we do.” Specifically in the area of research, technology has helped energize the curriculum and provide students with a superior educational experience.

A Research-Intensive Community

The curriculum in TCNJ’s School of Science is designed around scientific discovery, where research is deeply integrated into the undergraduate experience. With five academic departments including biology, chemistry, computer science, math and statistics, and physics, the School of Science offers a wide range of programs that collaborate with other disciplines throughout the institution.

“Teaching and research are seamlessly intertwined,” says Osborn. “TCNJ has adopted a teacher-scholar model for our faculty and a student-scholar model for our students. Research informs teaching and teaching informs research.” TCNJ has woven research into the curriculum in a way that scaffolds the students’ learning from the first year through graduation. “For a primarily undergraduate institution, the degree of integration between teaching and research and the engagement of undergraduates in authentic research is truly unique,” says Osborn. By way of example, Osborn explained that about 75 percent of TCNJ’s 1,200 students majoring in the sciences have completed two or more semesters of credit-bearing research and noted, “Our TCNJ community is not content with the status quo. One of our core values as an institution focuses on continuous improvement and reflecting on where we can enhance the student experience.” Blanton adds that TCNJ produces research-ready graduates who are prepared to move directly into selective, well-known graduate programs. “Our students are advancing science at a faster rate because they receive an impressive head start as undergrads.”

TCNJ’s research-intensive community offers mentorship opportunities across all areas of study, providing hands-on experience and faculty collaboration. As research apprentices and junior collaborators, TCNJ students explore pertinent research questions and receive invaluable support as they prepare for research-based careers. “The School of Science has over 80 full-time faculty members who are actively participating in research,” shares Osborn. “For example, we have a faculty member who is a computational biochemist and does computational modeling of bacterial proteins to design better disease treatments. A team in our mathematics and statistics department is using computational modeling to study cancer biology and statistical approaches to understanding and curing cancer.” The School’s research projects span a wide scope of topics, including black holes, jellyfish dynamics, animal behavior, plant and animal evolution, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

The School of Science has received several grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the discovery-based research happening throughout the College. “In particular, we received two grants from NSF last year,” shares Osborn. One of those grants was the Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*) program, which was a joint grant between IT and the School of Science. This grant invests in coordinated campus-level networking and cyberinfrastructure improvements, innovation, integration, and engineering for science applications and distributed research projects. “The CC* grant is creating a high-speed, friction-free network among the science buildings, connecting our biology, chemistry, physics, and math buildings directly to our scientific data center, a High-Performance Computing (HPC) cluster, without going through the central IT facility in a different building.” The creation of this network brings TCNJ’s research capabilities to new levels and brings exciting opportunities to research labs, the classrooms, and computer teaching labs.

In addition, the School of Science was awarded an NSF Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) grant. The MRI Program serves to increase access to multi-user scientific instrumentation for research and research training in institutions of higher education and not-for-profit scientific/engineering research organizations. An MRI award supports the enhancement of research training of students and the development of next-generation research instruments that open new opportunities to advance the frontiers in science and engineering research.

Meeting Research Computing Needs

TCNJ’s networking and computing needs are largely shaped by the College’s faculty and the research initiatives of each department. “Our faculty members are the experts in the field,” says Leonard Niebo, Associate Chief Information Officer, Information Technology. “Our team is here to support their research efforts and we engineer solutions so they can reach their goals.” Niebo says the success of TCNJ’s research program is heightened by the strong relationships amongst senior IT staff and the Deans of each school.

“Our institution does not have a separation between the IT side and the academic side of the organization. IT impacts what faculty members can achieve in the classroom and our team tries to shoulder the heavy lifting so researchers can focus on their areas of study.”

Niebo says the role of IT is to support the goals and vision of each department and build upon the foundation the team has already created. With the NSF CC* grant, TCNJ had to revise their proposal after the first application was denied. “We received feedback from the reviewers and revised our plan to contain a clear separation between what IT currently does to support the College community and what we intend to do to build upon that foundation from a research perspective.” With these revisions, IT had an opportunity to look inward and determine how they can focus on research when a specific request from a department is received versus the general IT function of day-to-day activities. “The NSF grant provided validation that IT needed to create a separate vision and goal that is different from the rest of the College, which was something we had never done before,” says Niebo.

High-Performance Computing

The NSF MRI grant allowed for significant enhancements to the TCNJ Electronic Laboratory for Science and Analysis, or “ELSA,” a High-Performance Computing (HPC) cluster. Named after the “Born Free” lioness and the College’s mascot, the lion, ELSA received new equipment to enhance the current and future computational needs of the College’s science programs.

The upgrades to ELSA tripled the number of graphic processing unit (GPU) servers available in the cluster and expanded storage space to meet TCNJ’s long-term scientific data archival needs. “The cluster has 113 compute nodes with 84 GPUs for accelerated computing,” shares Shawn Sivy, HPC System Administrator, School of Science. “ELSA has around 2 petabytes of raw storage for students and faculty to store their personal or group project files. We also have two visualization nodes in the cluster that allow us to run graphically-intensive applications, including programs like visual molecular dynamics (VMD) for molecular modeling.” In the past, a project that had generated a large amount of data would require many hours to download the information through a workstation. Now, researchers can access their results from the cluster without having to transfer any data.

The complexities of using an HPC system can prove challenging for many faculty and student users. To help, Sivy says an open source product called Open OnDemand has been implemented that provides a web interface for users to complete tasks. In addition, a chemistry program called WebMO provides a web interface for molecules to be built in a graphical environment and then submitted to the cluster to complete analysis. The School of Business is also using ELSA for their MBA program, and Sivy provides training and support for these users to help them be successful in their missions. In addition to improving the capacity for scientific discovery, the new instrumentation will help TCNJ to develop undergraduates who are well-versed in using this powerful resource and can enter the workforce as highly skilled individuals.

As an HPC System Administrator, Sivy manages the HPC system, network, and storage, provides user support and training, and conducts site management. On a typical day, Sivy reviews system logs, checks system status, and replaces any failed hardware. “Depending on the time of year, I am organizing for the semester by preparing accounts and software, working with students and faculty to troubleshoot issues, and conducting software configurations.” Sivy also maintains all documentation for the site, creates HPC visual learning aids, and works with the HPC advisory committee to plan for the future. “The advisory committee works directly with faculty and student researchers to determine hardware and software needs. This group has members from each of the sciences and they discuss funding opportunities, as well as defining the direction HPC will go in the future.”

Valuable Partnerships

TCNJ partners directly with faculty researchers to ensure they have the access and technology they need to drive their initiatives forward. “We want our researchers to have the networking capability and bandwidth necessary to be successful,” shares Blanton. “The College has expanded their support hours as the research footprint grows and as our graduate offerings expand.” In terms of IT governance, Niebo says the input of students and faculty is solicited and valued. “The College’s constituencies have an important voice and IT often collects information and feedback from these groups to make improvements and better support their needs.”

Blanton says research computing has to be nimble and must extend to the requirements and goals of each project. “This type of technology needs to be fluid and respond quickly to the demands of the research.” Blanton has found Edge to be a valuable partner in advancing both administrative and research computing for TCNJ and beyond. “Edge has been on an evolutionary path and seeing their offerings and capabilities grow and change has been interesting. Any event where Edge brings members together is a great opportunity for the CIOs and other staff to learn from each other and understand how they are best using the capacity and capabilities of Edge.”

Propelling Research Initiatives Forward

Driving research initiatives forward first takes valuing research and appreciating the role the area plays in helping students gain life-long skills. “Research, scholarship, and creative work plays an essential role in knowledge creation,” says Osborn. “Colleges and universities can start by taking an inventory of how students and faculty are already engaging with each other in the areas of research and how these projects are being showcased on campus. Over 20 years ago, TCNJ began a Celebration of Student Achievement. This event is an institution-wide conference where students present their research to the campus community and gain valuable exposure.”

Expanding undergraduate research needs to be faculty-driven says Blanton. “Institutions must spend time with their faculty to understand how they work with students, what kind of research they are conducting, and what tools they need. Putting funding toward technology without input and expecting everyone will adapt is a recipe for failure. We are partners with our faculty researchers and while we may not fully understand the science, we grasp what they are trying to accomplish.” Blanton suggests asking researchers questions to learn about current projects, including how they collect data, how data is stored, and with whom the data is shared. This insight will inform IT as to what kind of technical solution should be built.

TCNJ continues to gain acclaim in the research space and expand the College’s initiatives in innovation and discovery. “TCNJ has always had the expert faculty, the brain trust, and the ability to make an impact,” says Niebo. “As IT and the academic side of the institution aligned, the collaboration began to drive TCNJ’s success and helped us gain even more grant opportunities.”

On the Horizon

TCNJ recently created a 5-year IT strategic plan that is reviewed annually to determine if revisions are required to meet evolving needs and goals. “The plan is not static, but a rolling annual revision process tied to the budget and overall College plan,” says Blanton. “The College continually looks at people, process, and projects—making sure we have the right people in the right place with the right skills at the right time.” Through the review process, the College confirms that projects are aligned to help the institution achieve their goals and that processes are created to execute the project. “Having the right support structure in place is essential. All the integrations, reporting capabilities, and ongoing training and communication must be included in the plan to be successful,” shares Blanton.

Osborn compares determining the technological needs of the College to a chess game. “Creating a strategy is not as much about where the field is now, but where the field will be in the future. We must determine how to position ourselves to be flexible, because technology is always changing.” Osborn says TCNJ has designed the facility, including the hardware and software, to be multipurpose and adaptable over time. “We are quite fortunate to have this level of computational horsepower at a primarily undergraduate institution. We have a good mix of CPUs and GPUs for simulations and modeling, remote visualization and storage. TCNJ is able to utilize this configuration to directly connect the spaces in the science buildings to the cluster and this flexibility allows diverse research initiatives to take place simultaneously.”

In the years ahead, Osborn envisions TCNJ to be more computationally enabled, with greater connections between research projects across all fields. “The future involves thinking about how technology can enable the direction of research. More importantly, we must determine how technology can bring new tools to longstanding questions that allow us to answer those queries with much greater resolution than we were able to before.” In addition, the College is dedicated to further connecting all departments across the institution. “TCNJ is proud of our commitment to removing disciplinary boundaries and silos to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration,” says Osborn. “We’ve built a curricular infrastructure where new courses and programs can be created very quickly. Our culture and infrastructure allow for all areas to come together in collaborative research, benefiting students, faculty, and our local and regional community.”

TCNJ will be further investing in STEM facilities and equipment and Osborn says the College feels privileged to be stewards of these resources going forward. “As we think about the design of new buildings and the renovations of existing ones, the strategy is about being future-oriented. In terms of our facilities, we want to ensure the buildings, learning spaces, classrooms, computer labs, and the research labs are all infused with the technology necessary to allow students to have innovative, advanced learning experiences.”