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,
Professor Manish Mehta. The acquisition continues the College's history
of computing coups that dates to the dawn of modern computers in
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
will enhance research at Oberlin and will immediately be incorporated
into advanced quantum mechanics-based physical chemistry courses,
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
would take weeks to process, even on a top-notch single-processor
desktop computer. The result was effective computational pedagogy, but
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,
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
Although one-third of the NSF technology and equipment grants are earmarked for
undergraduate institutions, NSF program officer Joan Frye says she rarely sees
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."