Training Tomorrow's Energy Scientists

Researchers organize advanced computing workshop in Chile to enhance student supercomputing skills, encourage networking across the Americas

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The workshop organizers and students participated in daily lectures at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and enjoyed several social outings in Santiago.

Nearly 11 years ago, two young researchers, Richard Hennig and Derek Stewart, attended a materials science workshop in Santiago, Chile. Hennig, now a professor of materials science and engineering at Cornell University and Stewart, now a senior research associate at the Cornell Nanoscale Facility, stayed in contact with other workshop attendees. Recently, they combined efforts to organize a similar workshop, building an international bridge for the next generation of researchers.

The workshop, "Computational Materials Science for Energy Generation and Conversion," took place at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in January 2012. Graduate students and early post-doctorates from the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Chile participated in the program, sponsored by the Pan-American Studies Institute (PASI), an initiative of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy (DOE).

The students participated in hands-on tutorial sessions using the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), one of the most powerful academic systems in the world.

"The goal is to broaden participation with students in most places of the world," Hennig said. "These students will go into industry and research and will be the people making decisions 10 or 20 years down the line."

Hennig recognizes the need for a workshop of this nature. He also remembers his own experience at the workshop.

"We learned a lot from each other and those classes, so we thought maybe it's time to do something similar to give back to the community," he said.

About a year ago, Hennig and Stewart created an organizing committee including two professors he met at the workshop a decade earlier: Miguel Kiwi, professor of physics at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, and Bruce Harmon, deputy director at the Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University. The trio also recruited Michelle Johannes, research physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory , and Valeria Ferrari, director of the physics department at the National Commission of Atomic Energy in Argentina.

The committee drafted a proposal to the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering, which granted funds to set the project in motion.

Soon after, 20 North American students and 20 South American students traveled to Santiago, to learn about the tools needed to design new materials for energy. Instructors focused on the fundamentals of computational materials science, while encouraging new ideas for solar cells, nanoparticles and mechanical alloys.

The students also participated in hands-on tutorial sessions using the Ranger supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), one of the most powerful academic systems in the world.

Juanita Londoño-Navarro, a graduate student in materials science at the National University of Colombia, valued the training on Ranger and appreciated the opportunity to continue her allocation into the next year. She plans to put her new skills in computation, simulation and calculating materials properties to work in the energy sector.

"Events like this matter greatly because they build support and generate a guide for countries that do not have all the tools and machines for work and simulations," Londoño-Navarro said.

The workshop included a challenge project that gave participants the opportunity to sport their scientific creativity as different teams designed a device that captures carbon-based particles released during energy usage.

Students will return home and continue to have access to Ranger's programs, which they can download to their university or personal computers.

"We were quite proud that they learned practical tools, something new and exciting, for their individual research," Hennig said.

Workshop attendees study chemistry, physics, materials science, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and chemical engineering. Most students knew about high-performance computing and were exposed to supercomputing at their universities, but as many as 90 percent did not have access to systems of the scale provided by Ranger.

The organizing committee chose TACC's Ranger supercomputer as the primary HPC resource because committee members have a lot of experience on it, and it is large enough to accommodate 40 students running jobs at the same time.

The workshop included a challenge project that gave participants like Kenneth Hernandez-Burgos, a graduate student at Cornell University, the opportunity to sport their scientific creativity as different teams designed a device that captures carbon-based particles released during energy usage.

"I'm very competitive, so I liked the challenge topic," Hernandez-Burgos said. "Because I had already worked with organic materials, I tried to help others, but everybody figured out how to obtain excellent results."

Each participant described their individual research projects to the rest of the workshop attendees. They received feedback from other students and instructors.

"A memorable moment was when I presented my research project," said Hernandez-Burgos. "Even though it only took ten minutes, I enjoyed it because it was the first time that I presented myself as a scientist."

Hennig and the other organizers had hoped that the students would make a connection with each other at an early stage in their career. And according to Londoño-Navarro, bonds were created between students, researchers and scientists.

"I feel privileged to have been able to attend and meet people with such comprehension, experience and knowledge from so many different places," she continued. "And as a woman, it is also a very important role for me because in many countries around the world, women are just starting to emerge in the science fields."

Hennig and the committee members believe that supercomputers are necessary for all of the students who attended the workshop in Chile.

"They may not have complete access to advanced computing resources today, but they will need them in the near future," Hennig said. "Maybe in five to 10 years, these students will reconnect to make a workshop for the following generation of students to show them where they can go in life, learning about this kind of science."

Biactriz Arreola
April 11, 2012

The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin is one of the leading centers of computational excellence in the United States. The center's mission is to enable discoveries that advance science and society through the application of advanced computing technologies. To fulfill this mission, TACC identifies, evaluates, deploys, and supports powerful computing, visualization, and storage systems and software. TACC's staff experts help researchers and educators use these technologies effectively, and conduct research and development to make these technologies more powerful, more reliable, and easier to use. TACC staff also help encourage, educate, and train the next generation of researchers, empowering them to make discoveries that change the world.

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  • North and South American students attended a workshop in Chile titled "Computational Materials Science for Energy Generation and Conversion" focused on energy research using advanced computing resources.
  • Richard Hennig and Derek Stewart led the effort after participating in a similar workshop 11 years ago.
  • TACC provided access to Ranger during the two-week workshop and gave an additional one-year allocation to the students.

Aaron Dubrow
Science and Technology Writer