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Student Spotlight on Eric Dawson

Published on December 11, 2014 by Makeda Easter

Eric Dawson, a senior biology student at The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) always knew he wanted to pursue science. As a child, he dreamed of becoming a paleontologist while simultaneously tearing apart and reassembling computers that his dad brought home. Dawson's deeply rooted interest in science led him to UT where he began studying biology and volunteering for the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC).

"When I first began working for TACC as a freshman," Dawson said, "I had no experience with coding and no formal experience with supercomputing. I couldn't even exit out of a terminal!"

He soon got caught up to speed though performing benchmarking on sequence aligners and other bioinformatics code. As an undergraduate research assistant to Matthew Vaughn, Director of Life Sciences Computing at TACC, Dawson was able to integrate his life sciences studies with high performance computing (HPC) through iPlant projects.

The iPlant Collaborative, a cyberinfrastructure for data-intensive biology, provides powerful resources and offers scientific and technical support services to researchers around the world.

Dawson plans to attend graduate school for computational genomics, taking the skills he has learned in his classes and at TACC and applying them to the real world.
"Working on iPlant projects has been interesting because it's so vast. One particular educational project for me was integrating GOanna, a website that searches gene function databases to annotate sequences of interest, into iPlant," Dawson says. "Instead of moving the infrastructure to iPlant, we wrote a script that ran as a messenger between iPlant and the website."

Dawson's burgeoning interest in computer science also led him to UT's Student Cluster competition (SCC) team in his junior year.

Named Team Texas, the competes in the annual Supercomputing (SC) Student Cluster Competition, which gives students hands-on experience in HPC. In the competition, teams of undergraduate students race to assemble a cluster and run four distinct applications to completion, all within a 48-hour time limit and under a 26-amp power budget.

Team Texas wins the Student Cluster Competition for the third year in a row.
A two-year veteran on the team, Dawson emerged as this year's team captain, and led Team Texas to yet another victory. The team was the first to win the overall competition for the third year in a row. Dawson attributes some of his confidence in setting up clusters and running applications to iPlant.

"The competition is supposed to mirror real life, and it was kind of eerie how similar it was to work I've actually done," Dawson says. "iPlant and other projects have given me the ability to jump between systems, which helped build the flexibility needed to be successful in the SCC challenge."

After graduation, Dawson plans to attend graduate school for computational genomics, taking the skills he has learned in his classes and at TACC and applying them to the real world.

"I'd like to run some of these massive, data-set based informatics projects, similar to those at iPlant. The ethos behind it is one of the biggest factors driving me towards the field — it's all about advancing science, solving tomorrow's problems, and making the world a better place."


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