In 2003, Stefan Robila, Ph.D. joined Montclair State University (MSU) as a professor of computer science and is currently the Computer Science Director of the Computational Sensing Laboratory. With a diverse background in the topic, Robila completed his M.S. and Ph.D. in computer science at Syracuse University and his B.S. at the University of Iasi in Romania. He was also a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, University of Oxford (UK), University of Geneva (Switzerland), and Uppsala University (Sweden). Robila’s main research interests lie in computational sensing, and he has worked extensively with the collection and analysis of hyperspectral data. “My career began during my graduate studies, and I believe that for a researcher, and especially for faculty, graduate studies are a strong indicator of the direction your professional life will be headed,” says Robila.
“The focus of my research during graduate school explored a relatively new type of data called hyperspectral images,” continues Robila. “Rather than collecting a single grayscale image or a color image as you do with most cameras, a hyperspectral camera collects hundreds of grayscale images, and each of these images corresponds to a very narrow interval of the electromagnetic spectrum. This results in a refinement of the image that is not found in normal cameras. The hyperspectral data we collect can be used to differentiate among materials, plants, and minerals. We can detect whether vegetation is real or artificial or use this data in agriculture to reveal the health and potential success of crops. Professionals also use this type of imagery on production lines to investigate the quality of food products, including if they are corrupted by pathogens.” Robila’s work has now expanded to include more general research and applications for large data sets.
Expanding Research Focus
As Robila started to expand his research focus beyond image processing to include high-performance computing (HPC), especially data processing and visualization, the transition allowed him to further diversify his research to include general parallel and specificity computing for big data processing and visualization. “For the last decade, I’ve also looked at ways in which we can use data centers that maximize energy efficiency. New Jersey has been very open-minded and supportive of these initiatives. I’ve had excellent collaborators from my own department and the Environmental Science programs at Montclair State, as well as support from public companies and regional and national foundations—which has all helped me to broaden my research. In addition, as a computer scientist who works at a public research extensive institution with graduate and undergraduate students, I also sought to investigate research directions of significant community relevance, such as social aspects of computing security or artificial intelligence and machine learning tools for social science research and practice.”
With teaching experience that spans the computer science and IT undergraduate and graduate curriculum, Robila shares his diverse knowledge and passion with students looking to explore the world of computing. “I truly enjoy working with undergraduate and graduate students because they bring such enthusiasm and desire to learn and they’re looking for guidance as they build their own professional paths,” says Robila. “Montclair State has many first-generation students and people coming from all regions of the state and other parts of the world. During my time here, I’ve not only seen the transformation of my organization, but of the student body. Along with the growing student population, I’ve seen the group evolve and mirror the transformation of our state. They come to school with a tremendous interest in technology, especially computer sciences, and are looking to help find solutions to societal problems. Personally, I was extremely fortunate to have graduate advisors and faculty members who served as valuable mentors and role models during my graduate studies and helped make the transition to becoming a researcher much easier. I hope to provide that same guidance and support to my students as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives.”
Understanding Funding Opportunities
Between 2018 and 2021, Robila served as Program Director in the Office of Advanced Cyberinfrastructure (OAC) at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and developed a portfolio of awards that enable cyberinfrastructure research, development, and acquisition. “Spending time with the NSF gives you a tremendous in-depth understanding of how the funding environment functions within the Foundation,” shares Robila. “Some funding opportunities are tied to specific events. For example, a significant funding effort has occurred in the last couple of years due to the pandemic, where the NSF has run a very extensive program to support RAPID grants. These projects must have an outcome within twelve months and the grants target ways to combat the pandemic, whether the research involved molecular modeling of the virus, supporting research on the mental health wellbeing of society, or funding educational programs that enabled universities to function and support students and staff amid the pandemic.”
Along with an insider’s look at national funding programs, Robila says he also gained insight into the future priority of funding. “Sometimes the seed of funding is planted years before the funding is announced. Understanding how the federal government works and how federal agencies work together to come up with priorities for future efforts, helps us predict the direction research is headed. With this insight, I start thinking strategically about how Montclair State could be positioned to further support our researchers as they pursue cutting-edge research. Most importantly, we also want to create a strong pipeline where early career colleagues have access to funding and training opportunities that can help them build successful research endeavors.”
“Having an expert resource to consult, like Edge, will be very helpful for an organization to better understand the Cloud, when cloud computing is well suited and when it is not, and how to navigate the campus environment without penalties from the sponsor.”
— Stefan Robila, Ph.D.
Professor of Computer Science, Director of the Computational Sensing Laboratory, Montclair State University (MSU)
he Future of Computing
In discussing cloud resources, Robila says that any future research cyberinfrastructure will be a hybrid environment, with cloud computing as a significant component. “The Cloud offers important advantages, including providing organizations with the opportunity to procure cloud computer resources in an expedited manner. However, estimating the true cost of compute for a specific project can be challenging, especially when the cloud cost is provided in compute cycles or in data transfer. Plus, educating researchers on the use of the Cloud, including understanding the diversity of the cloud environment and the benefits and challenges, is not always financially feasible for an institution. Having an expert resource to consult, like Edge, will be very helpful for an organization to better understand the Cloud, when cloud computing is well suited and when it is not, and how to navigate the campus environment without penalties from the sponsor.”
Robila continues, “Projects across nearly every discipline require access to research cyberinfrastructure, but this investment is very expensive and can be difficult for many organizations to find significant funding sources to support larger cyberinfrastructure. Expansion is feasible, but institutions should not be expected to provide all resources on their own. In fact, the way cyberinfrastructure is sought today allows an institution to provide some local resources, maybe through some smaller size computing systems or smaller human resources support, but when a researcher requires expanded access to cyberinfrastructure resources, multiple organizations can pull their resources together. Upon joining the team at Montclair State, I recognized the essential role Edge played in coordinating common resources and providing our institution with high quality access to the larger research community. I’m extremely happy to see that Edge has expanded beyond our region and is crossing state lines to build an even greater network. I see Edge continuing to push forward and build a community that is not bound by state borders, but creates an extraordinary opportunity for community colleges and state colleges and universities to work together across the country.”
Building Collaboration Mechanisms
Upon adding the information technology major to the computing program at Montclair State sixteen years ago, the number of students majoring in computing doubled. “Adding this new major was an extraordinary event and allowed us to spend significant time defining what our team is compared to computer scientists,” shares Robila. “With the rise of big data, we have been given this opportunity again, where we’re looking to define a cyberinfrastructure (CI) professional. This exercise involves looking at how skills from computing can combine with skills from other disciplines. The future CI professional should be well trained and educated in specific aspects of sciences, as well as being well versed in the computing field. Many programs within our organization can set up a good base for identifying these specific skills and helping other organizations to create successful CI programs at their own institutions.”
Many academic institutions share a common mission and Robila says members of the education community have a very natural way of building collaboration mechanisms among themselves. “Being in the educational world, our common goal is to help our students succeed. We often see community colleges collaborating with larger institutions to develop educational programs and facilitate the transfer of students. I don’t see why this strategy cannot be expanded to research. We often hear discussions in this country about the lack of trained professionals in specific fields, and computing is one of the largest areas lacking well-trained professionals. Community colleges have an impressive pool of talented and well-trained professionals—both in faculty members and students—and we must build upon the strength of the community college and undergraduate institution. By helping to connect these smaller schools with R1 institutions, we provide opportunities for more computing students to participate in innovative research. Edge plays an important role in facilitating these collaborations and helping show the common thread throughout our institutions: driving research and discovery and creating a strong and successful workforce for generations to come.”
By highlighting technology-based research and discovery achievements and ongoing projects throughout the region, EdgeDiscovery aims to facilitate multi-campus collaborations and partnerships—and their transformative impact—on the research communities in both small and large institutions across New Jersey and the region. Learn more at njedge.net/research.