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The need for speed: Mason makes huge strides in cyberinfrastructure

September 24, 2020   /   by Martha Bushong

Photo by Getty Images

A new computing system will support George Mason University’s expanding research infrastructure as part of its investment in cyberinfrastructure improvements, which includes upgrading facilities and hardware and software to support the educational and research missions of the university

The new computing system, named Hopper in homage to computer programming pioneer Grace Hopper, will support research and education projects focused on advancing transportation and infrastructure systems, geography and geoinformation sciences, astrophysics, social media analytics to support disaster informatics, computational fluid dynamics, materials science, natural hazards research, data mining, computer vision, automated vehicles, bioinformatics, neuroscience and economics.

Funding for this intiative comes from a variety of sources and involved collaboration across the university, led by a steering committee with membership from the Office of Research, Information Technology Services, and the colleges.

“This level of funding this quickly is without precedent,” said Aurali Dade, Mason’s interim vice president for research. “We expect enormous overhauls with these cyberinfrastructure investments as they will support high-impact research and education across all three of Mason’s multidisciplinary research institutes—Institute for Biohealth Innovation, Institute for a Sustainable Earth, Institute for Digital Innovation—and throughout the schools and colleges in numerous departments and academic programs.”

Four funding sources contributed to the initiative: $9.1 million from the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Tech Talent Investment Program, which will enable numerous upgrades and investments; $1.1 million from a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation (NSF MRI) Program grant; $4 million from Virginia’s Equipment Trust Fund (ETF); and $2.5 million from an NSF Binding Research Infrastructures for the Deployment of Global Experimental Services BRIDGES award.

The resources developed with the BRIDGES award will serve the Mason community and researchers from around the world. Each source has a unique role to play to amplify Mason’s already strong computational research portfolio. The TTIP money was crucial, but as Dade noted, the additional $1.1 million from the diverse NSF MRI grant team was a major win for Mason.

Hopper will support both traditional and nontraditional high-performance computing users. This new system will augment Mason’s current cluster, ARGO, to better serve the computational research growth at Mason.

The Proposal Team

Four research professors—Elise Miller-Hooks, Maria Emelianenko, Shobita Satyapal, and Yue Cheng—worked with Jayshree Sarma, director of research computing and co-investigator on the grant, to obtain the NSF MRI funding.

The professors see great potential for the new system in relation to their research, which includes analyzing the relationships between black holes and their home galaxies in space and studying massive transportation networks in the world’s shipping lanes.

“Hopper’s cutting-edge computational resources will allow us to test exact solution methods on real-world-size problems,” Miller-Hooks said.

Miller-Hooks is building high-fidelity, mathematical tools to study world maritime trade flows, and working with minute-by-minute data from the movement of thousands of cargo vessels around the globe.

“These tools are allowing us to study how these flows changed as the world’s supply chains shut down as COVID-19 struck.”

Maria Emelianenko, co-principal investigator and professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, said her research team is pushing the boundaries of computational mathematics

“The nature of my team’s work is highly interdisciplinary and the size of the problems and datasets often precludes the codes from running on a standard machine,” Emelianenko said. “Hopper will enable us to scale up our efforts and realize some long-standing ideas we had to put on hold.”

Those ideas include simulating the behavior of polycrystalline materials that undergo coarsening or mechanical deformations, running optimization problems related to the ideal placement of rain gauges across various regions of the world, and analyzing adapting behavior in complex biological networks.

Shobita Satyapal, co-principal investigator and professor of Department of Physics and Astronomy, studies the mysteries of black holes, including understanding the connection between supermassive black holes and the host galaxies where they reside. 

Research from the fourth co-principal investigator, Yue Cheng, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, includes distributed systems, storage systems, container-based virtualization, serverless/cloud computing, and the internet of things.

The new high-performance computing initiative will be made available to all Mason researchers, faculty and students who need this level of support for their work.

The Office of Research is also gathering data from the Mason research community to help guide investment of the TTIP funds.

“We’re being very strategic about the investment of these funds” Dade said. “From a survey of faculty, we will develop a strategic plan for investing these resources that will be shared broadly.”

For more information, contact orcadmin@gmu.edu.