National Science Foundation

With 35 students receiving the National Science Foundation Fellowship this year, UT was ranked No. 12 in the country for the highest number of recipients. 

The research-based grant, which is awarded to both undergraduate and graduate students in engineering, science, technology and mathematics, provides a $34,000 annual stipend for three years.

For many of the awarded students, this kind of funding is something that could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially in a growing professional field that gets less money every year, according to Bruno Rego, fellowship winner and biomedical engineering graduate student.

“Showing that the NSF has faith in you and your work can carry a lot of weight when you apply for other fellowships or even research grants,” Rego said. “For students getting their doctorates now, we have no idea how shallow the funding pool will be after we graduate, so having a history of being able to ‘get money’ is becoming that much more crucial when trying to land a post-doc and eventually a faculty position.”

The fellowship is also helpful to students who want to pursue major projects in school and in the future, said Wiley Jennings, fellowship winner and civil engineering graduate student. Wiley said he plans to use the grant to reduce water-associated disease in the U.S. and Cambodia.

“The interesting thing about this science and engineering fellowship is that [the NSF] is really interested in funding people who show a strong history of commitment to science- and engineering-related social issues,” Jennings said. 

One problem that many students face when going through graduate school is being able to fund research work as well as tuition at the same time, said Michelle Dose, fellowship winner and chemical engineering graduate student.

“It will allow me to continue with my project and branch out into areas that interest me the most, rather than being somewhat constrained by the requirements of being funded purely by an industrial sponsor,” Dose said. “The pay increase will be very helpful with covering living expenses and having a bit more fun outside of research and classes.”

According to Rego, the University’s ranking for the grant is not surprising, considering the amount of engineering talent at UT.

“I think when the NSF gets applications from UT, and they see how we speak about our work, they see the ambition we have,” Rego said.

Psychology associate professor Cristine Legare received a three-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study how children develop scientific reasoning abilities.

Legare — who also serves as the director of the Cognition Culture and Development Lab — will work with David Sobel, cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences professor at Brown University, and Maureen Callanan, psychology professor at University of California-Santa Cruz, on the study.

According to an overview of the study, Legare and her team will study the behavior of various families with young children at children’s museums around the United States. Sobel said the team will use multiple museums for the research, but Legare will focus on the Thinkery, a children’s museum in Austin.

The experiment seeks to reconcile the seemingly incompatible nature of what the researchers call “exploratory” and “explanatory” learning, according to the overview. Exploratory learning refers to learning through hands-on experience, while explanatory learning refers to instruction from a teacher.  

“In addition to uncovering patterns of family explanation and exploration, the proposed studies measure children’s causal understanding and build on this knowledge base to develop and test effective interventions,” the overview said. “Children’s museums are ideal environments for this research because they give us access to everyday activity and conversations of families, and they provide a natural laboratory for testing the effectiveness of targeted interventions.” 

Sobel said the experiment seeks to understand how the interactions between parents and children relate to the causal structures in the museum exhibits. 

“We are looking at how the museums themselves can promote exploratory and explanatory behaviors in parents and children to support the learning opportunities that takes place in children’s museums,” Sobel said.

Cybil Guess, director of experience at the Thinkery, said she thinks the experiment will be insightful for both the researchers and the museum staff. Guess said the museum has collaborated with Legare before, but this experiment could improve the museum experience.

“This experiment takes her research and brings it to an applicable level,” Guess said. “I think the results of the experiment will allow us to do our job better at the museum.” 

According to the study overview, the findings of the experiment will produce new strategies for introducing scientific reasoning to children and promote children’s desire to learn more in the fields of science and technology.

Sobel said the grant will start in January.

Vice President of research Juan Sanchez is serving as UT’s lead partner with the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, which donated a three-year $3.75 million grant to the university. The grant promotes research for the creation of commercial technologies through the school.

Photo Credit: Sarah Montgomery | Daily Texan Staff

The National Science Foundation awarded a three-year, $3.75 million grant to the University to form the Southwest Alliance for Entrepreneurial Innovation Node, a regional group hoping to turn academic research with commercial potential into business initiatives. 

The node is part of the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program, which focuses on the commercialization of technology in previously funded NSF research in the fields of science and engineering, according to Heath Naquin, who will be the executive director of the Southwestern I-Corps Node. Naquin said UT has been tapped to be the lead site for the Southwest node, which will also include Rice University and Texas A&M University.

“It is a big deal, in my view, for the nation,” said Juan Sanchez, vice president for research at UT. “It is a program that is aimed at training entrepreneurial faculty members so that they will be more prepared to transfer their product of research and development into the commercial markets. There are only a few universities in the country that are designated nodes of the I-Corps [program].” 

According to Naquin, candidates for the grant will devise three-person teams composed of a principal investigator, mentor and entrepreneurial lead, which can be a graduate student. If selected, teams will receive a six-month, $50,000 grant from the NSF and will attend I-Corps training at an I-Corps node.

“There are two I-Corps team grant submissions coming up on Sept. 15 and 30,” Naquin said. “The node will be coordinating an information session for interested faculty and students to get a better understanding of what the I-Corps program entails for them.” 

Naquin said the University will host its first national I-Corps cohort in October. 

Since 2011, I-Corps has helped 319 teams start 163 business ventures, according to the NSF website. 

“The overall goal of I-Corps is about getting innovation out of the labs and into the marketplace and train researchers to think about how to commercialize their technologies more efficiently and effectively,” NSF I-Corps spokeswoman Sarah Bates said. 

Catherine Riegle-Crumb, education and sociology associate professor, received a nearly $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation in June to study racial, ethnic and gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and math education, also referred to as STEM.

Riegle-Crumb said she wants to understand why women and minorities are underrepresented in these fields and will devote the next five years to learning what makes female, black and Hispanic students successful or unsuccessful in science and math as well as what influences these groups to decide on STEM careers. Riegle-Crumb said her data sets are representative of both Texas and the nation as a whole and will look at a variety of factors, including student achievement through tests and grade scores, as well as peer and teacher support.

Riegle-Crumb said she hopes that her research will help to make STEM fields more accessible to women and minorities. 

“We need to have students that are interested, that are committed and that have academic skills. We need to have that whole kind of package,” Riegle-Crumb said.

Identifying the issue as a “crisis,” the National Math and Science Initiative found only 44 percent of American high school graduates showing an ability to perform in college-level math and 36 percent in college-level science in 2013. The numbers are significantly lower for black and Hispanic populations. Also, according to National Math and Science Initiative data, women are underrepresented in STEM careers, making up only 23 percent of the STEM workforce.

“Women, if they want to be really successful, and if they want to do as well as their male counterparts, they need to be better than them. They need to be the very best and not just be okay enough to get through,” chemistry sophomore Elizabeth Gerzina said.

Riegle-Crumb said there are a number of factors including social, economic and biological considerations that influence career choice and educational success.

Jolene Jesse, a grant program director at the National Science Foundation, said the comprehensive nature of Riegle-Crumb’s research encouraged the foundation to give her the $985,224 grant.

Microbiology junior John Flores said he is supportive of Riegle-Crumb’s goals. Flores, who identifies as a Mexican-American, said his high school experience was one marked by racism and politics.

“I came from a small, rural town with a graduating class of 21 people,” Flores said. “The most they ever encouraged us to do was find a farming job. I wanted to go to UT and be a doctor and that was almost unheard of.”

Study results will be published periodically over the next five years.

 

Projects in Antarctica by UT researchers in the Institute for Geophysics could be affected by a summary of plans released by the National Science Foundation to improve research and facilities in the United States Antarctic Program.

The National Science Foundation released the report, “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness,” last week as a response to ten recommendations made by the U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Panel. The panel was put in place to conduct an independent review of policy and advise the agency on how to improve its logistical capabilities.

UT Research scientist associate, Joseph MacGregor, said he understands why the foundation has chosen to take this approach given the challenging budget situation.

“Program managers and proposal review panels already consider the logistics burdens of proposal projects, although the latter group does so perhaps more indirectly than the former,” Macgregor said. “Reviewing the scientific merit of proposals is already a lot of work, so I’m concerned that requiring a more formal review of logistics costs will shift added burden to scientists if it is not implemented effectively.”

The report indicated the foundation has already begun implementing many of the cost-saving ideas proposed by the Blue Ribbon Panel. 

According to UT research scientist associate, Britney Schmidt, most of the logistical costs are for maintaining sites, which is necessary, and not due the impact of any one grant.

“Of course there are probably ways to cut back, but I think we’re in a climate of cutting for cutting’s sake, and at some point, you start cutting out the ability to do great science,” Schmidt said.

Representatives of the foundation are considering ways to reduce the size of its ice-equipped aircraft fleet, which has become costly. Schmidt said this year there were already too few flights scheduled for the C17 aircraft impacting everyone on site.

“This impacted everyone because science equipment was late, which can extend or prevent program operation,” Schmidt said. “By saving a few flights' cost, you might actually lose more money by having to have more people around the site for longer, or by having to have a second season for some programs that can’t finish their objectives. Or worse, not having the ability for programs to finish their objectives, which has all kinds of costs you might not be able to put on a line item.”

Forcing principal investigators and review panels to consider the cost effectiveness of their institution’s proposed work is concerning to senior research scientist Don Blankenship.

“There is no way an individual [principal investigators] can accommodate the full spectrum of these imperatives within a particular proposal and if we tried to address those issues there would be significant push back by our reviewers as well as the administrators overseeing the proposal process,” Blankenship said. “The bottom line here is that we will continue to propose work that is justifiably efficient within the NSF operational system as we understand it.”

Director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) Jay Boisseau talks about UT’s new Stampede Supercomputer at the AT&T Center on Tuesday evening. The supercomputer has already powered many different science projects and is the most powerful model TACC has created thus far.

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

UT’s new Stampede supercomputer, which has been operational since January, is capable of doing previously impossible science and making predictions that can save money and lives, according to Jay Boisseau, director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

The supercomputer, which has already powered 583 different science projects, is twenty times more powerful than Ranger, TACC’s previous model, and can perform 10 quadrillion operations in a second. Its construction and maintenance are funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Boisseau said while the technical capabilities of the computer are exciting, the projects that are enabled by them are the most exciting part of the new system.

Boisseau said Stampede renders hurricane forecasts with greater precision than older systems because it can simulate more small interacting units in a storm system in the same amount of time. This allows forecasters to narrow down the area where the hurricane is predicted to make landfall and help evacuation efforts.

“Hurricanes are a great elevator pitch for supercomputing,” Boisseau said.

It is also easier to adapt programs to Stampede than older systems.

“In previous generations of supercomputers, when you made that leap between academic research at a smaller scale to a larger scale, you had to relearn the actual way you talked to and interacted with the computer,” Greg Khairallah, an Intel business development manager, said. “With Stampede … it allows you to take the same programming constructs … and scale that.”

Khairallah said he found this essential to allowing more researchers to take advantage of Stampede’s power to process or simulate large amounts of data.

Rick Herrmann, a U.S. public sector field initiatives manager for Intel, said this is enabled by better hardware, including the Intel Xeon Phi processors that power the system.

Boisseau said having a supercomputer on campus helps UT as a research univeristy. Although 90 percent of the system’s processing time is allocated by the National Science Foundation, UT is allowed to decide how to use the other 10 percent of its time. 

Boisseau said the best part of the system is the National Science Foundation-paid staff.

“UT doesn’t pay for any of the people, but it gets their expertise,” Boisseau said.

Boisseau said since acquiring the grant for the system, other universities have been contacting him for advice.

“If you want to be the best research university in the country, you better have the best computational tools,” Boisseau said.

Published on March 6, 2013 as "Supercomputer expands frontiers". 

Hundreds of Xeon Phi coprocessors fill tables in the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The newly introduced coprocessor, designed by Intel, is the innovative component of the TACC’s Stampede supercomputer (behind).

Photo Credit: Pearce Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

The University is trying to stake a claim as a leader in interdisciplinary science research with the recent installment of the world’s most powerful academic supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). 

The system, named Stampede, became operational on Jan. 7. The TACC staff and Dell engineers installed and tested the supercomputer during a six-month period, said Tommy Minyard, director of advanced computing systems at TACC. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the initial $27.5 million cost as part of its “eXtreme Digital” program and will continue to fund Stampede operations for four more years. 

President William Powers Jr. said the addition of Stampede to the University’s facilities only augments its prestige as a premier research campus. 

“Stampede is a game-changing supercomputer that reinforces UT’s role as a supercomputing hub and a world-class research university,” Powers said in an emailed statement. “It will help scientists solve some of the world’s most pressing problems and it will promote collaboration across campus and across the country. Jay Boisseau and the faculty and staff at TACC are at the heart of something very big.”

TACC was founded in 2001 and is located on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, according to the TACC website. It is one of the top centers for computational science used by researchers nationwide. 

Stampede’s power is derived from 6,400 Dell servers that each contain two Intel processors, according to Minyard. He said Stampede’s high-speed network means applications are able to efficiently run with many processors simultaneously. 

Minyard said Stampede is available to many U.S. researchers who can apply for time on the system through the NSF.

“Most of the time is allocated to NSF researchers,” Minyard said. “However, 10 percent of the system is available to UT researchers [since UT is] hosting the system. The system will be used to solve a wide range of problems from almost all science disciplines, such as computational chemistry and physics, astrophysics, computational fluid dynamics, weather and climate modeling, computational biology, etc.”

Reuben Reyes, senior systems administrator for the Bureau of Economic Geology at the Jackson School of Geosciences, said Stampede is great to work with because of its capability to rapidly solve large problems. 

“It has its advantages and disadvantages,” Reyes said. “The biggest advantage is you can scale up very complicated problems at a very high level.”

Despite the system’s ability to solve problems quickly, there are some issues with accessibility to the computer, Reuben said. He said waiting for a problem to be solved by Stampede can sometimes take longer than the solution itself.

“You’re in a queue waiting for your process to take off,” Reyes said. “Once it takes off, it’s solved really, really fast, but let’s say I need larger resources and in the queue I’m in, it may take longer for the supercomputer to get to it.”

Printed on Thursday, January 17, 2013 as: UT computing center installs world's most able supercomputer 

The Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT recently received a $27-million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a new, state-of-the-art supercomputer. The supercomputer, affectionately nicknamed “Stampede,” will be one of the world’s fastest.

Stampede’s creation highlights the continued trend toward computational sciences. These developments have made it clear that computing and software skills are no longer restricted to the domains of electrical engineering or computer science. The need to cultivate these skills in future students in all areas of study is on the rise, and UT is uniquely positioned to introduce an interdisciplinary program that would allow for the application of computing in other subject areas.

The idea is to create an interdisciplinary program, such as informatics, that would include a core of classes with a heavy emphasis on mathematics, probability, statistics, computing and software development. Incoming freshmen could go through this core in their first two years and could then branch off into another area of study. This other area could be anything from business to liberal arts, and students would use the computing skills they acquired to solve problems in that specific subject.

There isn’t a program at UT that directly teaches students how to apply computing to understand large amounts of data. A degree program like informatics would allow students to have the ability to solve real world problems through information analysis and data management.

Modern technology has allowed for the collection of large amounts of information across the globe but without the proper understanding, these troves of data are meaningless. Data must be processed to provide information that will guide research and future innovations. The new challenge we face today is how to manage and manipulate this data. An informatics program would provide the basic building blocks to solve these new problems.

UT already has a solid foundation on which this program could be built, as it offers many of the needed classes. The Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation in the College of Natural Sciences offers a plethora of interdisciplinary courses. There are also several small pockets of college-specific informatics programs on campus already that would greatly benefit if they were united. This would allow for a more streamlined way for students and faculty who are interested to get into applied computing. And of course, the advanced computing center offers unparalleled resources that students could use.

The beauty of such a program lies in the fact that it would be one of the only pure interdisciplinary programs out there. Its inception would allow for greater collaboration between departments and allow for further advancements in data-centric research topics.

However, an interdisciplinary program of this scale would have to overcome some major hurdles. All of the involved colleges would have to buy in and bury their egos to form an over-arching curriculum. And in time of budget cuts, money is always an issue in determining whether an informatics program would add value to the University. The addition of Stampede, however, shows that both UT and the NSF put great stock in the future of computational science.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior

The Natural Sciences Council sponsored a faculty panel Friday highlighting the importance of public funding for investigative research. The group noted that the National Science Foundation, the federal organization responsible for disbursing billions of dollars per year in research grant funding, has seen its budget cut in recent years. The NSF said the reduced funding will manifest itself in reduced grant funding for basic, investigative science research in favor of research with more direct applications.

The panelists included some of the University’s most distinguished faculty members in the College of Natural Sciences. All of them rightly emphasized the value of basic research. A primary function of organizations such as universities and the NSF — that is, government-sponsored, taxpayer-funded groups — is to overcome the private-sector prejudice against investment in projects that bear fruit only over a long-term horizon.

This public funding model is organized to distribute the high costs of conducting this type of high-risk, high-reward research that the private sector is hesitant to engage in because of the uncertain financial ramifications. Basic research is often the starting point for commercial startups and its utility is often recognized only long after it has been completed. Without a way to distribute the cost in the short-term, these long-term benefits may be lost, which would certainly do more harm to society than would refusing to fund scientists adequately in the immediate future.

The value of basic research can be hard to understand. Modeling inheritance patterns in fruit flies may not seem like the most relevant type of research done here, but the principles discovered through basic research have formed the foundation and continue to influence the development of more commercial, applied research.

Dr. Antonio Gonzalez stresses the importance of funding research to promote education at The Importance of Funding Research on Friday afternoon. Gonzalez was one of three panelists at the event put on by Natural Sciences Council.

Photo Credit: Julia Bunch | Daily Texan Staff

As federal research funding faces budget cuts and shifting priorities, some UT faculty have emphasized the importance of maintaining funding for investigative science research.
The National Science Foundation cut its budget almost 1 percent from $6.926 billion in 2010 to $6.859 billion in 2011 but has requested a budget of a $7.767 billion, which would be a 12.1 percent increase from appropriations in 2010.

Such programs have been prioritizing “applied research” to solve specific problems over “basic research” which seeks to investigate phenomena, said biological sciences research educator Antonio Gonzalez. Gonzalez said the USDA has stopped funding research on Arabidopsis plants, which are often used as model organisms in basic plant research, to focus more on crop science research. He said the line typically drawn between basic research and applied research is a false dichotomy.

“It’s very difficult to predict what basic research will yield and when it will yield it,” Gonzalez said. “So you can think of it as some kind of progression or continuum.”

Biology freshman Juan Herrejon, student and faculty chair for the Natural Sciences Council, said the group organized a panel discussion Friday for Natural Sciences Week in response to budget cuts in the past couple of years from federal programs that fund research, such as the USDA and the National Science Foundation.

Herrejon said such cuts threaten the University, which is known for its research.

“At UT, we’re known for being a research institution, and a lot of the stuff that goes on here is basically research-driven,” Herrejon said.

Associate biology professor John Wallingford said basic biological research has helped in past health crises including the emergence of AIDS, SARS and the H1N1 bird flu virus.

“A new epidemic could come along, and there’s going to be a group of people who have been studying this and nobody cared, and Sarah Palin’s mocking them, and they have the answer,” he said.

Wallingford said researchers should make efforts to communicate the potential benefits of their basic research to the public more effectively, especially when taxpayers fund the research.

“Why on earth would you give $100 million of your tax money to me to study frog gastrulation?” Wallingford said. “If instead of saying, ‘I’m very interested in frog gastrulation,’ I say instead, ‘I’m using the animal models [to study] human birth defects,’ then suddenly it makes a little bit more sense.”

Computer science professor Calvin Lin said it’s crucial for government programs and universities to fund basic research because private firms are unlikely to do so because it’s not immediately profitable.

“Short-term research makes money for a company,” Lin said. “Long-term research, if done well, instead will create new companies. It will create new markets. It will create new industries.”

Lin said the creation of new industries, such as the Internet, from long-term research helps create new jobs but that such research can also have psychological benefits.
“Part of what makes us human is this desire to learn more and to make progress,” he said.

Prepharmacy freshman Tania Joakim Jr. said the panel made her think of basic research differently.

“Even though it seems like [basic research] is not doing anything to maybe politicians, it could actually be important in the future,” Joakim said. “It can lead to applied research, so that’s why I disagree with decreasing funds.”