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Q&A with Fran Berman, Director, San Diego Supercomputer Center

Fran Berman is approaching her 5-year anniversary as Director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC). In this interview, Berman discusses SDSC's forward momentum, the impact of computers and data on interdisciplinary research, the challenges of Center leadership, and an ongoing commitment to helping women in science and engineering.

Q. What exactly does a supercomputer center do?

Berman: These days, our title is a bit limiting. SDSC is a full-service science and technology center providing expertise, software, service, and resources (including computers and data storage) to a global community of science and engineering researchers and educators. Our emphasis is on data, and we have a broad range of activities, from serving up the Protein Data Bank to 20,000+ researchers a day, to managing DataStar, a premier national resource that executes at 15.6 trillion calculations per second on data-intensive and compute-intensive computer applications.

SDSC's most valuable asset is our outstanding multi-disciplinary science and engineering staff which includes experts in data, software, and hardware technologies, applied researchers, and specialists in science and engineering education and training.

Q. What are some of the cool research applications that you've seen at SDSC?

Berman: We serve the entire science and engineering community so we see a wide spectrum of applications. Recently we began work with the Red Cross on integrating more than 30 "missing and found" databases into KatrinaSafe.com, a meta-list that provides "one stop shopping" for hurricane survivors and loved ones. This is an application that's not only engaging technically but touches the hearts of SDSC staff who, like so many, want to help.

I love that SDSC is the steward for community data collections ranging from information from the world's major telescopes to images of works of art. The codes that run on our machines are also fascinating and span the spectrum -- from astrophysics codes like ENZO which explores the origins of the universe to simulations which provide building blocks for the discovery of new HIV/AIDS drugs.

One of my favorite applications is a simulation called "TeraShake" that we did in collaboration with the Southern California Earthquake Center simulating a 7.7 earthquake in along the southern San Andreas Fault, including the Los Angeles basin. In the simulation, Palm Springs was leveled, but San Diego came out okay.

Q. What new ventures are on the SDSC horizon?

Berman: SDSC has emerged as a leader in all things data - analysis, management, preservation, community collections, software tools, and even high-performance computer hardware configured to support data-intensive applications. There is a real need for this: With the ubiquitous increase of information technologies, our society is faced with a deluge of data. We use data technologies for everything from reading the news to checking out a new recipe to computer gaming. Manipulating, managing, and understanding data, as well as preserving it and computing with it provides a critical tool for researchers and educators.

SDSC's approach has been to provide a comprehensive "Data Cyberinfrastructure" environment for dealing with data. This is taking us in a number of new directions including data preservation and research into the development of ontological relationships that help make sense of data. New national partners in this era for SDSC include the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and new local partners on the UCSD campus include the UCSD Libraries, Cal-IT2, and others.

SDSC has traditionally been strong in bioinformatics, computational biology, and other technology-enabled areas in the life sciences. Today's SDSC has great strength in the geosciences as well with outstanding national projects such as GEON and increasing efforts in dealing with the data technologies needed for a new era of sensors and observing systems. Today there are also important emerging and key projects in engineering at SDSC such as the IT Center for the national George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES).

Q. What are your thoughts about the NSF's strategy for funding the supercomputer centers at UCSD and at the University of Illinois?

Berman: The current focus of NSF on Cyberinfrastructure, the development of integrated information infrastructure enabling science and engineering, is extremely important for progress and new discovery in the research community. The most difficult challenge of Cyberinfrastructure is its implementation. SDSC and its sister center NCSA in Illinois were asked by NSF to take a leadership role in Cyberinfrastructure several years ago (via "core" funding), and we have both been providing leadership, collaboration opportunities, support, and a full set of services to the research and education community. The new Office of Cyberinfrastructure at NSF, initiated this summer by Director Arden Bement, is charged with developing the next generation of infrastructure projects and funding vehicles. SDSC, NCSA, and the national community are working closely with the new office to design and craft a functional, reliable, and enabling infrastructure and program.

It's also important to note that NSF "core" funding only represents 25% of SDSC's funding portfolio and is highly leveraged by other projects. The other 75% of our funding comes from a variety of projects such as TeraGrid, NEES IT, GEON, the Protein Data Bank, CiPRES, the Alliance for Cell Signaling, BIRN, and other efforts. NSF core support is critical to SDSC, but we do have a broader portfolio.

Q. What is SDSC's interaction with the private sector?

Berman: We're just ramping up our private sector program at SDSC and we are looking for a real dialogue with this community. We have received requests from private firms to use SDSC data storage and compute cycles but we are also interested in exploring deeper partnerships. We are also seeking greater engagement with a broader set of federal agencies as well as the museum and library community, especially with respect to the critical area of digital preservation.

Q. What are some museum projects you've worked on?

Berman: We have worked on visualization projects with the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in San Diego and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York. We produced images for AMNH's permanent Hayden Planetarium show "Passport to the Future" which features a clip developed at SDSC on the birth of the Orion nebula. The "clip" involved a 12 hour run on over a 1000 processors of our supercomputer and generated 36,000 visualization frames. We're very proud that Orion won a second place visualization award from Science Magazine, and excited that approximately 1.5 million people have seen our work at AMNH.

Q. When you look at all the myriad issues SDSC is addressing right now, can you identify any that are priorities?

Berman: For all of us at SDSC, it's an incredible privilege to work at this world-class institution. Every day we work with the cutting edge of cyber-technology and the best scientists and engineers in the world. A real priority at SDSC is to "do something real", i.e. to make valuable and substantive contributions to the science, engineering, and technology community. As Director, it's my job to keep the Center strategic, successful, and sustainable. I spend a lot of time thinking about new directions and about how to best guide the Center into the future.

Q. In a profile published last year, Business Week called you "the reigning teraflop queen." Women in science and engineering are still a rarity. How are you working to change that?

Berman: I'm still trying to live that down! I've been involved in women's groups in computer science since I was a grad student. At SDSC, I've focused on creating an environment where a variety of leadership skills are encouraged and where teaming and collaboration are important. It's an excellent environment for all staff and has proved an appealing environment for women - at this point in time, 50% of my senior management team are women. That didn't happen by design or by directly attacking the problem. It happened by creating a rich environment where women's and men's leadership skills could flourish, and having outstanding people at the Center of both genders who could rise to the challenge.

I've been very active in associations that address the role of women in science and engineering for over a decade. In the mid-'90s, I co-chaired the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women, a wonderful and effective group that is still going strong, and I am currently involved in the Leadership Advisory Council of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology.

As for bringing the next generation into the field of science, I love doing anything involved with kids and science. I've given talks at my kids' schools, and when kids come to SDSC to visit, I'm always happy to spend time with them. At SDSC we do some of the most exciting work in the world, and it's fun to share both the work and our excitement with kids.

Q. What led you to a career in science and engineering?

Berman: I came to computer science from mathematics. I was always interested in math as a kid, and I majored in math in college and grad school. My Ph.D. thesis was in theoretical computer science, and my first faculty job was in a computer science department. Over the years, my areas of interest have evolved. My academic research has focused on Grid and High Performance Computing for the last 15 years and working in this area has been greatly satisfying. I've always been eclectic in my research interests and I am interested in all kinds of science. SDSC Director is a great position for someone interested in a broader view.

Q. What do you do to unwind?

Berman: My family is really important to me. I spend a lot of time with my husband and my two kids, both of whom are teenagers and really great people. I love hiking, and I recently fulfilled a personal goal of hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. It was an incredible and challenging experience and so much fun that now I'm planning on hiking the Grand Canyon "rim to rim" next spring