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NSF Grants UT and ASU $5 Million to Train Cyberinfrastructure Facilitators

Lonnie Crosby

UT’s NICS, the National Institute for Computational Sciences, is dedicated to helping researchers supercharge their work with high-performance computing resources and project-specific assistance. The staff on the team includes computational scientists, application developers, and system administrators with expertise in data storage, networking, research computing, and programming.

However, the 11-person NICS team is hardly enough support for UT, an R1 research institution with almost 1,700 full-time faculty and plenty of industry partners.

“It has been a challenge getting enough expert staff together to meet researchers’ needs,” said NICS Research Director Lonnie Crosby.

Fortunately, Crosby has a plan to fix the imbalance.

In August, Crosby helped secure a $5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant dedicated to training and coordinating cyberinfrastructure (CI) experts, also known as “facilitators,” over the next five years. The grant will be split evenly between UT and Arizona State University (ASU), which is home to a cyberinfrastructure team headed by Gil Speyer, director of ASU’s Computational Research Accelerator, and Marisa Brazil, ASU’s Associate Director of Research Engagement.

Together, the UT and ASU teams will launch the Cross-Institutional Research Engagement Network (CIREN). The network will allow Crosby, Speyer, and Brazil to apply their teams’ experience in matching expert staff with researchers’ needs while training new CI experts to meet increasing demand.

“CIREN is a network with two main functions: training and collaboration,” said Crosby. “The facilitators we train will have expertise in high-performance computing, machine learning, and AI. We will then highlight facilitators’ skill sets and publications on a website so researchers can easily identify potential collaborators.”

Existing cyberinfrastructure facilitators are invited not only to join the network, but to share their expertise with those in training.

“Both mentors and facilitators in training will be paid for their time,” Crosby said. “That makes it easier to expand the facilitator network, increasing its impact.”

In addition to facilitators, CIREN will engage a diverse range of researchers.

“Eighty percent of our work on this grant will be devoted to supporting local projects at and around the two CIREN campuses,” said Crosby. “The remaining twenty percent of projects will engage researchers nationally.”

CIREN will connect with existing national and international CI professional organizations, such as the NSF’s ACCESS program, to develop the CI facilitator role through training, collaboration, and sharing of best practices.

“One of the biggest challenges in creating a project like this is getting enough people with the expertise you need,” said Crosby. “For this network to be resilient and useful for a large number of researchers, we need a large number of facilitators with a diverse set of skills.”

CIREN participation will be open to UT staff, graduate students, research faculty, and external contractors in any discipline. The program starts January 1, 2023, and Crosby wants to hit the ground running.

“If you’re interested in CI facilitation or you have research needs in the areas of high-performance computing, machine learning, or AI, please complete our interest form,” he encouraged. “We have a big opportunity to transform the research on and off our campuses.”