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Vassar College awarded more than $600,000 in two National Science Foundation grants for significant computing infrastructure upgrades that will boost faculty research capabilities

While Vassar is a small college, it boasts an ambitious and productive faculty research agenda. Just since 2007, Vassar faculty members have earned thirty National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling more than $9.5 million, in subject areas ranging from chemistry to cognitive science and economics to earth science. The two newest NSF grants awarded to Vassar for a combined $624,000 will fund considerable expansion of the college’s computing capacity and security as part of a larger infrastructure initiative, enabling faculty to more effectively participate in large-scale data analysis and Internet-based research collaborations.  Among the key results of the larger initiative, Vassar will more than double its digital bandwidth and gain the capacity for its faculty to participate in the advanced Internet2 research network, the non-profit consortium whose members include major higher education research institutions, industry, and government.

The new NSF grants come from the agency’s Campus Cyberinfrastructure – Infrastructure, Innovation and Engineering program (CC*IIE). Among its priorities is helping professors at small institutions to more readily participate in virtual research organizations with peers at institutions of all sizes across the country and around the world.

"NSF’s investments in campus cyberinfrastructure recognize the increasingly key role campus networks play in scientific discovery and education,” said Irene Qualters, director of the advanced cyberinfrastructure division at the National Science Foundation. “These two awards recognize Vassar’s opportunity to address scientific challenges through state of the art technology advances in networking and security.”

Adds Vassar’s chief information officer Michael Cato, who oversaw both of the college’s successful proposals, “Not only will we help our faculty join in virtual organizations with colleagues at other institutions, but our improved computing infrastructure will make possible more robust cross-disciplinary work here at the college. All of Vassar’s departments can benefit.”

An NSF grant for $324,000 will be used to build a next-generation research computing network for Vassar, which among other gains will dramatically reduce and remove barriers to the free flow of data, providing better support for the transfer of large data sets, explains Cato. Recent examples of faculty research demonstrate why these computing upgrades are so important.

In the Economics Department, assistant professor Benjamin Ho has been analyzing a dataset with 47 million observations of home thermostat use; using Vassar’s current infrastructure it took Ho two weeks to download all of these files. Nancy Ide, professor of computer science, was thrilled to hear about the potential infrastructure growth involved with the grants, and not just for her own NSF-funded projects. She explained, “ [There] is a rapidly growing need for not only scientists but also humanities scholars, that is, server space and capabilities for serving up datasets and web pages that emerge from their research. One colleague, Dorothy Kim in English, finally had to move a project to her collaborators' site at Brown because Vassar was unable to provide her with the space to store and distribute her data via the web from Vassar, and she is now applying for another grant that may need similar infrastructure.”

Improvements made possible by this NSF grant will also open up a variety of new and improved research capabilities. For example, professors will be able to more readily access remote scientific equipment, such as sensor networks to monitor physical conditions (including weather and animal behavior). They will also be able to more effectively control and manipulate data gathered from various geographical locations. Technically the computing upgrades will:

  • establish a high-capacity 10Gbps, fully meshed core backbone to facilitate high-speed data transmission across the Vassar network;
  • allow for the design and configuration of a Science DMZ (a network architecture explicitly designed for high-performance applications) to enable the unfettered flow of science data across and between researchers, data collection, analysis and storage resources.

Cato explains that greater computing infrastructure for collaborative projects naturally leads to more complex cybersecurity issues. As a result, the second NSF grant of  $300,000 will be used for an identity and access management (IAM) system, “So that we can better and more securely organize who has access to what, and when,” said Cato. For example, he explained that this new system will allow for great flexibility in granting on- and off-campus users access to data through the creation of virtual organizations. “With this grant we will move from our current homegrown, largely manual IAM to an automated fully featured system,” Cato explained.

The NSF grants come at an ideal time for Vassar, with the college slated to complete its Integrated Science Center project in the fall of 2016 (http://science.vassar.edu/). A key result of the project’s ambitious facility renovations and new construction will be to bring the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Physics and Astronomy, and Psychology into close physical proximity on campus. In fact the Integrated Science Center will also serve as the initial focal point for the dedicated science research network (the Science DMZ) that the larger of Vassar's two new NSF grants will make possible.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, October 29, 2014