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New UMaine Supercomputer to Offer Maine Students Access to Climate Change, Scientific Modeling

Contact: Professor Phillip Dickens, 581-3967; George Manlove, 581-3756

ORONO — Students in Maine schools soon will have an opportunity to experiment first-hand with variable climate change scenarios by accessing the University of Maine’s environmental modeling programs from their own classroom laptops.

The UMaine Department of Computer Science has received two National Science Foundation grants, one for $200,000 to buy a second university supercomputer, and a second, for $300,000, to develop new supercomputer software to improve the transfer of massive data files.

The new supercomputer, and an access portal being developed for it, will allow Maine middle school students to access the University of Maine’s Ice Sheet Model for environmental experiments. It also will enable the university to engage in much larger outreach and research activities, the type that require massive computing power, according to Phillip Dickens, Ph.D., professor of computer science and the principal researcher receiving the grants.

Computer science faculty and students will create a user-friendly, scientific grid portal for accessing UMaine’s vast computing resources, scientific applications and research animations, Dickens explains. Users, ranging from Maine’s top research scientists to schoolchildren, will access the grid portal through the Internet with a standard Web browser.

“This new grid will allow Maine’s leading research facilities to pool computing and data storage resources, creating a single, powerful computational platform,” says Dickens, a high-performance computing specialist. “It will allow the state’s researchers to pursue new areas of scientific discovery that have been heretofore impossible to explore.”

The new 96-processor supercomputer will be housed at Target Technology Center in Orono and overseen by Dickens and four grant project collaborators: Sudarshan Chawathe and James Fastook from the Department of Computer Science, and Yifeng Zhu and Bruce Segee from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The supercomputer will support the research of participating faculty, in addition to research by members of Maine’s general research community, including The Jackson Laboratory. Data from experiments or simulations at Jackson could be transferred to the university supercomputer in real time over an expanding optical network and returned quickly with scientific feedback.

“The portal will allow researchers from around the world to access some of the outstanding research infrastructure developed here at the University of Maine, including, for example, the widely used University of Maine Ice Sheet Model developed by Jim Fastook,” Dickens says. “Making this powerful model available to the larger research community, as well as models and data from the university’s Climate Change Institute, will significantly increase our understanding of the impact of climate change on the environment.”

The new grid portal also will allow the state’s middle-school students to access UMaine’s modeling simulation software. Students will to be able to simulate and modify environmental parameters and receive immediate feedback on how occurrences like shifting temperatures or varied carbon emissions would affect ice sheets being studied, Dickens says.

“I’m really excited about the educational outreach component of these grants,” he says. “Part of educational outreach is to disseminate important research results to the wider community, and the scientific grid portal provides an excellent platform with which to do so.”

The $300,000 grant for file-transfer software is expected to resolve a data bottleneck issue that handicaps many supercomputers running upwards of thousands to tens of thousands of processors, all attempting to simultaneously store and retrieve data through a common file system. Dickens, with his students and the new supercomputer, will develop software to significantly improve file transfer speeds, resulting in better supercomputer performance in extreme computing environments.

Both grant-funded projects will involve at least a dozen graduate and undergraduate students from UMaine’s computer sciences and electrical and computer engineering programs, providing them a “rare opportunity to become involved in important, cutting-edge computer science research,” Dickens says.

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