Supercomputing Center Helps Prepare Students for STEM Careers

September 2010 By

OXFORD, Miss. - With a looming national shortage of professionals in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the Mississippi Center for Supercomputer Research at the University of Mississippi is reaching out to teach high school students how supercomputers help advance science.

"We have an extreme national need to prepare the next generation of simulation scientists," said Jason Hale, MCSR interim director. "We want to be engaged in that effort to help young people in Mississippi be more competitive."

The center already has helped Rosalie Doerksen, a 14-year-old Oxford High School sophomore. The first high school student in the state to use MCSR resources, Doerksen, as a freshman last year, employed the free supercomputing capabilities at MCSR to perform detailed calculations for her science fair project.

"Overall, I had a positive experience," Doerksen said. "I benefited greatly from the supercomputer training I received in preparation for my research."

A participant in the 2010 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair this summer, Doerksen completed a project examining how a newly discovered bowl-shaped molecule might be employed to more efficiently trap carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This technology may be an important part of efforts to reduce global warming.

"The supercomputers helped me to determine other possible lower energy conformations of this molecule," said Doerksen, whose favorite field of science is chemistry. "The research was intriguing, and it could have the potential of assisting in carbon sequestration."

Doerksen's science fair entry, "Computational Optimization of Carbon Dioxide Capture," won the Oxford High School competition in the chemistry category. She went on to win the Best of Fair prize at the regional fair, the ASM Materials Education Foundation's Most Outstanding Exhibit in Materials Science award and the U.S. Air Force Certificate of Achievement award. The regional win qualified her for the international competition in May in San Jose, Calif. There, Doerksen competed against more than 300 students in the chemistry category.

High-performance computers contain hundreds, even thousands, of central processing units, or CPUs, allowing for thousands of operations to be conducted simultaneously. Those operations can require as little as a few hours or up to several months to complete, depending on the computations.

"My calculations took about a week, 145 hours, to be exact." Doerksen said. But that's if you're counting hours by a clock on the wall. Since her one calculation was spread over two processors, it actually consumed 290 computational hours.

Last year, 37,000 such calculations requiring 3.7 million computational hours were conducted at MCSR, including quite a few molecular simulations similar to Doerksen's.

"These scientists are doing fantastically complex things," said Brian Hopkins, an MCSR user consultant. "Rosalie is calculating chemical properties using a form of the molecular Schrodinger equation that can take thousands and thousands of CPU-hours to solve."

Besides getting hands-on supercomputing experience, Doerksen gained insight into the importance of MCSR's goal to better train her peers. If America wants to become more energy-independent, advance technology, help prevent climate change and save lives through medical research, then government and educators must encourage students to pursue careers in these areas, she said.

"The current youth soon will be the leaders of this nation," said Doerksen, who is interested in a career in medicine.

Mississippi is well-equipped to help educate the next generation of simulation scientists. The state ranks in the top 10 nationally for supercomputing, with shared facilities at UM, the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi State University and the Engineering Research Development Center in Vicksburg.

Supercomputers are used for calculation-intensive tasks, such as problems involving quantum physics, weather forecasting, climate research, molecular modeling of chemical compounds and physical simulations of nuclear weapon detonations.

"As a shared facility, MCSR creates economies of scale across the entire Mississippi research enterprise," Hale said. "Faculty and student scientists statewide can run their simulations for free at MCSR, without the hassle and expense of maintaining their own supercomputers. This not only saves each institution money; it buys Mississippi scientists extra time to discover and compete."

Supporting nearly $13 million in active research grants, MCSR systems are used for research in chemistry and biochemistry, economics and finance, bioinformatics, operations research and management science, physics, civil engineering and computational fluid dynamics.

MCSR personnel are available to work with other high school students to teach them the value of research computation, promote STEM careers and help them use the center's supercomputing resources. For more information, contact Jason Hale at 662-915-3922 or visit mcsr.olemiss.edu