UA taps McMullen to lead computer center

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 85 views 

One of the state’s key infrastructures with an eye on the future – the Arkansas High Performance Computing Center – has a new director starting today (August 13).

Rick McMullen comes to the University of Arkansas as the former director of research computing at the University of Kansas. McMullen is a scientist and strategist tasked with taking the center to the next level.  He will be spearheading efforts to secure more funding and generate new activity.

He said it’s great to be helping the center grow because it is a multiple-purpose tool that uses analytics to generate profits regardless of the industry applying the technology.

“Before the UA, I was directing start-up support centers. Here, I’m heading up an operating organization that was established a couple of years ago with a great track record and known across the country,” McMullen said.

The purpose of the center is to support science both at the university and across the state.  It supports research in computer science, integrated nanoscience, computational chemistry, computational biomagnetics, material science and spatial science. The center is funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority.

“These days we have two challenges,” McMullen said, “We have to understand what’s going on and manage large amounts of information.”

He said the first component of understanding is thinking about using computers to analyze processes, build models and to use those models to analyze results. McMullen said the computer is a tool to figure out the mathematics of the physical phenomena in any area. McMullen wants to focus his directorship in three areas including new groups on humanities and health care.

In humanities, he said there are new users who need to take text and relate it from one author to another.  In health care, it could be used in drug design by employing analytics to connect your personal genome to a medicine that could be the most effective for you, McMullen added.

UA faculty and students from several departments use high performance computers at the center for exploring the fundamental properties of chemicals, nanomaterials to develop new methods of detecting breast cancer and organizing spatial data.

“People may not realize how indispensable computers are to science and medicine. The center is in a very important role in leading-edge products,” McMullen said.

Jim Rankin, vice provost for research and economic development of Academic Affairs at the UA said, high performance computers breaks big problems into smaller parts. Being in the backyard of the world’s largest retailer, he sad the university helps with enormous amounts of data.

While McMullen couldn’t disclose specific projects, he did talk about using information and trying to  figure out how to monetize the results.

“That’s what it’s all about essentially, right?” McMullen said.

The experts say Wal-Mart and other companies struggle to truly understand customer preferences and how to use data the most efficiently within the supply chain.

“It’s about slicing and dicing information into predictive models or studying behavior of your customers.  It’s about getting stuff from here to there, on-time and on-the-shelf,” he said.

No matter what industry uses the high performance computer, Rankin said it is a resource not just for the university but for the state as well.

He said the center has helped fund $13 million worth of research on campus, work that’s published in 20 journals and been presented at more than 40 conferences across the nation.

While Governor Beebe recently increased the general revenue for the state’s higher education institutions to $733 million, according to the state Department of Finance and Administration, more money is needed in high performance computing.

McMullen said he hopes to help raise funds so more can benefit from the research center work.

His first day on the job includes attending a state-wide conference in Springdale. The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) is a program designed to promote scientific progress nationwide. It was set up for states that don’t receive federal funding. There are 27 of them, including Arkansas.

McMullen replaces Jack Cothren, associate professor of geosciences and Douglas Spearot, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.