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Research Computing on the Road: PEARC19

PEARC is a conference centered around sharing the most advanced research computing methods and technologies to researchers. This year’s conference was held in Chicago and a number of Northwestern IT Research Computing Staff presented. Check out summaries of their talks and experiences below.

What the Heck is a Microaggression? (Jackie Milhans, Manager, Computing and Data Support Services)

In this Birds of a Feather, research computing and data staff from Northwestern and Purdue (Jackie Milhans from Northwestern, Gladys Andino and Marisa Brazil from Purdue) led a discussion about microaggressions and how they affect teams, individuals, and services for research computing and data services.

As with other higher ed IT areas, research computing and data services staff have lacked in both inherent and acquired diversity. The attendance was high and resulting in standing room only in the back, showing that microaggressions are an area of concern for several members of the PEARC community, due to issues of not feeling valued, included, or empowered on teams, as well as microaggressions affecting long-term performance of staff. The conversation led to people sharing examples of microaggressions they’ve witnessed or experienced, as well as several in the audience wanting to know how they can help. Many people shared examples of how they have dealt with microaggressions happening to others and themselves. Check out the slides!

Data Science Support Services for Researchers (Christina Maimone, Research Data Services Lead)

Data science support staff from four universities (Christina Maimone from Northwestern, Simo Goshev from Boston College, Alex Storer from Stanford Graduate School of Business, Ista Zahn from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health) shared their paths to data science support roles. They each shared their institution’s service models for data science support at their institutions, and answered questions about some of the challenges that arise in these roles. The discussion touched on co-authorship and other credit models for support staff. Some of the the challenges they all faced were surrounding protected data and human subjects research, and how data science support roles differ from those of both computational facilitators and computer science faculty. Check out the Slides and Paper!

Good Enough Project Management Practices for Researcher Support Projects (Christina Maimone, Research Data Services Lead)

Research computing staff, both here at Northwestern and at other universities, are increasingly providing extended support for researchers on projects that last weeks or months. Good communication and planning are critical for the success of these projects and the sustainability of research support services. Yet standard project management frameworks aren’t designed for projects with one or two people, small budgets, and relatively short timelines. In the paper and presentation Christina Maimone discussed project management practices that help researcher support projects progress smoothly and allow both support staff and researchers focus on the work they enjoy. Check out the Slides and Paper!

Management, Movement, and Lifecycle of High-Volume Research Data (Jenni Hartman, Research Lab Engineer)

This Birds of a Feather session brought together both researcher-facing and systems-facing staff to discuss challenges with managing research data, data management practices and policies, and infrastructure related to storing and lifecycling research data. Most attendees echoed the challenges of efficiently storing, moving, and eventually deleting large amounts of data from on-premise storage. Goals included keeping costs low enough for researchers but enough to cover the hardware and staff to support it. Another challenge is running out of space to store large amounts of data, but needing to find the space due to incoming faculty and large project needs. Overall, the session was very informative, lively, and it highlighted that these are not unique problems or challenges to Northwestern, but are echoed across research institutions.

Team Members’ Overall Impressions From PEARC19:
  • Matthew Rich, Cloud Services Specialist: People are an integral component of all cloud success stories, but those people are not always who you think they are! Students and research staff may find themselves on the front lines of cloud adoption with little support, so finding those groups and offering help and guidance is crucial.
  • Jenni Hartman: You may think that the challenges you face with handling a research computing project – time constraints, changing priorities, not enough resources, managing multiple projects – are unique, but in reality these are common issues. It’s important to get ahead of projects to set expectations, forecast your time commitment, document everything, and if needed, ask for support early on.
  • Christina Maimone: Collaboration across universities is critical for research computing to grow in ways that can best support researchers. Achieving some commonality across services and the language used to describe those services, as well as staff roles and career paths, will help both staff and researchers engage with research computing consistently as they move between institutions.
  • Jackie Milhans: There was increasing interest in workforce development for research computing and data services staff. This is important, as the needs of researchers at academic institutions are growing and changing. We will need to continue to grow and transform to keep high-performing staff in the field and attract the new talent and perspectives needed to support academic researchers in the years to come. There also seems to be understanding and agreement that research computing is no longer just high-performance computing, but has many facets.

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