15 Oct IT architecture will drive collaborative research at leading life science institute
Madison, Wis. – Sangtae Kim sees quite a synergistic combination in research and information technology, and as the new executive director of the Morgridge Institute for Research, he has a chance to make synergy happen.
At Morgridge, which is under construction on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Kim will be expected to apply his computing expertise and his experience in directing collaborative and interdisciplinary research projects, which led UW officials to believe he is the right candidate to lead the institute.
Kim, a professor of mechanical and chemical engineering, spent two years at the National Science Foundation as the NSF’s director of the division of shared cyber infrastructure. He brings the perspective of someone who has served in the private sector (pharmaceutical industry), government (NSF), and academia.
“I think modern research is very much dependent on advanced IT capabilities, and I certainly expect to bring that experience and perspective to the opportunity at Morgridge,” he said.
Software in the middle
The Morgridge institute is one-half of the twin Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Morgridge will attempt to advance public health by facilitating collaborative research across several disciplines, including biology, computer science, and bioengineering. As such, its information technology components will play an instrumental role in those cross disciplinary collaborations.
Kim’s vision of the computing components still is taking shape – the facility does not open until 2010 – but it will be developed from a broad perspective and it will be based on robust middleware.
Kim, who thinks of information technology in terms of computing, data management, and high-speed communications, said some of the greatest challenges in international medical research arise from the massive amounts of data that have to be analyzed and aggregated. With global research partnerships, this data is generated in a distributed fashion, which can result in interoperability issues.
Kim said middleware, the software that connects other software components and applications, enables the delivery of distributed information in a single, functioning system. That’s why middleware development will be his major focus at Morgridge.
“Based on my past experiences in scientific IT, I intend to make a very significant investment in middleware capabilities, and I’d like to see Morgidge become a leader in developing the middleware for medical research,” he said. “I’ve been primarily talking to potential leaders for that area, so a big part of my responsibility is not developing the middleware, but identifying the people who are leaders in that field that can actually lead the development of such capabilities.”
To accommodate a smooth and seamless transfer of information, he said it’s important to have internationally agreed-upon standards. “There is a tremendous amount of social organizational challenges that have to be appreciated and incorporated into these strategies,” he said. “Just coming up with technology in one place and saying, `I have an answer to everything and everyone else just has to follow what we do,’ that’s just not the way things get accomplished in that global partnership.”
Flight of the Condor
The Morgridge Institute’s IT components also will include existing technology like Condor, a computing system used by researchers around the world. As a UW-Madison professor and researcher in the 1980s, Kim appreciated the power of the Condor grid; later, at the NSF, he was part of a group that sponsored research that helped Condor and its related technologies to evolve to the next generation.
Also working to advance Condor is Miron Livny, a computer science professor at UW-Madison whose research team seeks to translate novel computer science concepts into production-quality software. Livny noted that Condor is software to manage large, independent samples of computer and storage resources to support “high-throughput computing,” which refers to large jobs or tasks that are done over long periods of time.
“The goal is to automate it so that you can handle the large volumes with as much computing capacity as you can get your hands on,” Livny said.
Kim said technologies like Condor have a proven track record, yet are constantly evolving. Throughout his career, he has witnessed a natural tension between people who want to try something new and people who want to build on the most successful existing infrastructure, but that tension is not something he wants to suppress at Morgridge.
“In terms of the Morgridge Institute and its IT capabilities, the existing technologies will be very much a part of the picture of what we want to accomplish with information technology in an enabling role,” Kim said. “I want to strike a balance between using existing capabilities that have a proven track record, without curtailing vision and opportunities for people who think they have a great idea and want to do something better.”
Livny has no official affiliation with Morgridge, but he expects the computer science department to have a role in developing its information technology. Livny, who has been working with Kim since the early 1990s, said one role would be to help scientists develop specific tools for their work.
“I think the goal is to be aware, engaged, and open-minded about the tools that are out there, whether it’s open source or commercial, and to have the personnel to do it,” Livny said.
Kim also applauded the strategic vision behind the Broadband Optical Research, Education, and Sciences (BOREAS) Network, a collaboration of four major research institutions – Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, and Wisconsin – to build a high-speed regional network that will enable researchers to move vast amounts of data between themselves. BOREAS will not only foster international cooperation, but help these institutions compete effectively for research dollars from government agencies that reward collaboration.
BOREAS members are part of the Northern Tier Network Consortium, which stretches across the northern part of the United States from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean.
“I think, for a number of reasons, that is extremely strategic, not just for the state of Wisconsin but for the whole nation,” Kim said. “That’s something I will definitely support, and I would like to participate in enabling that vision.
“There is a broad array of research and science and technology that makes the case for such an investment, including medical research, but more broadly thinking, the future of energy research would be greatly enabled and facilitated by such a network.”
Livny said the capacity and redundancy BOREAS would bring is very important for science that is moving toward national and international collaborations. Initially, giving scientists a dependable infrastructure will not have a video requirement, “although that may come,” he said.
In addition to scientific breakthroughs, Livny expects computing advances stemming from Morgridge to be adopted in corporations, just as Condor has been. He said better ties to the business community are needed, but noted that Condor took a while to gain acceptance – even on campus.
“It was frustrating to me that I had users of Condor in the scientific community in Europe long before I had them on campus,” he recalled. “Sometimes it’s more difficult to get things happening locally than it is remotely.
“Today, we have very strong connections on campus, and we can do better in the state. Our tools are open source, so anyone can come in and use them free of charge. We believe that’s the way to get the system moving forward, and by having more users we can advance the technology.”
Kim has high praise for the Milwaukee Institute’s privately backed efforts to build a cyber infrastructure of shared, grid-based computing, and establish an IT-based collaborative network among researchers in southeastern Wisconsin. He said cyber infrastructure has a strategic role to play in research and economic development, and he would like to foster that kind of thinking statewide.
“That’s really music to my ears,” he said of the Milwaukee Institute. “In other circumstances I’ve seen, information technology is almost an afterthought, and I think that’s fundamentally wrong. I really applaud the folks in Milwaukee, and southeastern Wisconsin in general, for having that vision and foresight.”
While the private sector is stepping up to the plate, Kim plans to be outspoken about declining government support for software development, especially from federal sources.
“It’s not something that I see changing immediately,” he said. “All of the folks that would like to see significant improvement in the software for scientific research are going to be disappointed in the short term. The Morgridge Institute is somewhat of a blank canvas, and that also creates an opportunity for us to do something in that void.”