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Sciences Get Super Support with New Computer


A 64-bit supercomputer, coveted for its gigantic memory and incredibly fast processing speeds, will arrive in Oberlin's Science Center in late January. Oberlin is one of the first four-year, liberal arts colleges in the country to gain a supercomputer of this magnitude, says chemistry Professor Manish Mehta. The acquisition continues the College's history of computing coups that dates to the dawn of modern computers in the 1960s.

Four Oberlin professors—Mehta and Matthew Elrod in chemistry, Dan Stinebring in physics, and John Karro in computer science—wrote the grant proposal that won favor with the National Science Foundation (NSF), and in June, the NSF presented a $300,000 check to Oberlin to cover the costs of the supercomputer, software, installation, and maintenance.

"The supercomputer will strengthen science education at Oberlin," says Mehta. "It will enhance research at Oberlin and will immediately be incorporated into advanced quantum mechanics-based physical chemistry courses, astrophysics research, bioinformatics, computational biology, computational mathematics and computer science.

"It's possible to do cutting-edge science on a shoestring budget, but it's becoming harder and harder," Mehta says. With the supercomputer, "we can now work on problems that we couldn't otherwise work on. It's really that simple. It will open new doors."

For example, some students may analyze the human genome. This requires the processing of complex algorithms and large amounts of data, which in turn need a fast computer with a vast amount of memory. Until now, students could use only small test cases of the human genome because anything larger would take weeks to process, even on a top-notch single-processor desktop computer. The result was effective computational pedagogy, but with little broader interest to students. The supercomputer will allow them to process larger, more complex, and more realistic data in a single afternoon.

"Computation is becoming an ever more important facet of work in the natural sciences," says Oberlin Provost Clayton Koppes. "[The supercomputer] will also foster interdisciplinary work in the natural sciences and mathematics division; this is particularly important since interdisciplinary approaches are becoming ever more critical in the sciences."

Among the reasons Oberlin received the money was a climate ripe for advanced computing in the College and region, Mehta says. In recent years, Oberlin has built a new, state-of-the-art science building, and it already has professors doing research with needs for high-performance computing. In addition, the statewide Third Frontier Network, a technology initiative of the Ohio Board of Regents, is well under way. The network—more than 1,600 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cables—will eventually link Ohio's colleges and universities, elementary, middle, and high schools, and state and local governments with other one another and other research facilities. Oberlin will likely join this network in the near future.

Although one-third of the NSF technology and equipment grants are earmarked for undergraduate institutions, NSF program officer Joan Frye says she rarely sees applications for supercomputers from undergraduate colleges. These usually come from the large research universities. "Oberlin's proposal did an excellent job of demonstrating a meaningful impact on students and broad, interdisciplinary applications along with effective uses of past equipment received through NSF grants," Frye says. "It was very well written and was really one of the easier proposals to decide on."

When it comes to student research, Oberlin has always been a pacesetter. In 1964, the physics department became the first at an undergraduate institution to install a mainframe computer, says Mehta. The following year, Oberlin became the first four-year liberal arts college to establish a computing center. In 2000, College faculty applied to the NSF for a high-end magnetic resonance spectrometer—an instrument that can determine the three-dimensional structure of natural products with great accuracy. Today, Oberlin is the only four-year, liberal arts college with a 600 MHz spectrometer.

For Mehta, a grant proposal that started with the question "what if?" has led to a whole new research frontier at Oberlin. Mehta turns to his laptop to show a picture and description of the supercomputer. As he waits for his laptop to bring up the screen, Mehta says, "This thing I'm using now is so not a supercomputer."

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