CHTC Facilitation Innovations for Research Computing

After adding Research Computing Facilitators in 2013-2014, CHTC has expanded its reach to support researchers in all disciplines interested in using large-scale computing to support their research through the shared computing capacity offered by the CHTC.

Research Computing Facilitator Christina Koch with a researcher.
Research Computing Facilitators Christina Koch (left) and Rachel Lombardi (right).

As the core research computing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the leading high throughput computing (HTC) force nationally, the Center for High Throughput Computing (CHTC), formed in 2014, has always had one simple goal: to help researchers in all fields use HTC to advance their work.

Soon after its founding, CHTC learned that computing capacity alone was not enough; there needed to be more communication between researchers who used computing and the computer scientists who wanted to help them. To address this gap, the CHTC needed a new, two-way communication model that better understood and advocated for the needs of researchers and helped them understand how to apply computing to transform their research. In 2013, CHTC hired its first Research Computing Facilitator (RCF), Lauren Michael, to implement this new model and provide staff experience in domain research, research computing, and communication/teaching skills. Since then, the team has expanded to include additional facilitators, which today include Christina Koch, now leading the team, Rachel Lombardi, and an additional team member CHTC is actively hiring.

What is an RCF?

An RCF’s job is to understand a new user’s research goals and provide computing options that fit their needs. “As a Research Computing Facilitator, we want to facilitate the researcher’s use of computing,” explains Koch. “They can come to us with problems with their research, and we can advise them on different computing possibilities.”

Computing facilitators know how to work with researchers and understand research enough to guide the customizations researchers need. More importantly, RCFs are passionate about helping people and solving problems.

In the early days of CHTC, it was a relatively new idea to hire people with communication and problem-solving skills and apply those talents to computational research. Having facilitators with these skills bridge the gap between research computing organizations and researchers was what was unique to CHTC; in fact, the term “Research Computing Facilitator” was coined at UW-Madison.

RCF as a part of the CHTC model

Research computing facilitators have become an integral part of the CHTC and are a unique part of the model for this center. Koch elaborates that “…what’s unique at the CHTC is having a dedicated role – that we’re not just ‘user support’ responding to people’s questions, but we’re taking this more proactive, collaborative stance with researchers.” Research Computing Facilitators strengthen the CHTC and allow a more diverse range of computing dimensions to be supported. This support gives these researchers a competitive edge that others may not necessarily have.

The uniqueness of the RFC role allows for customized solutions for researchers and their projects. They meet with every researcher who requests an account to use CHTC computing resources. These individual meetings allow RCFs to have strategic conversations to provide personal recommendations and discuss long-term goals.

Meetings between the facilitators and researchers also get researchers thinking about what they could do if they could do things faster, at a grander scale, and with less time and effort investment for each project. “We want to understand what their research project is, the goals of that project, and the limitations they’re concerned with to see if using CHTC resources could aid them,” Lombardi explains. “We’re always willing to push the boundaries of our services to try to accommodate to researchers’ needs.” The RCFs must know enough about the researchers’ work to talk to the researchers about the dimensions of their computing requirements in terms they understand.

Although RCFs are integral to CHTC’s model, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without challenges. One hurdle is that they are facilitators, which means they’re ultimately not the ones to make choices for the researchers they support. They present solutions given each researcher’s unique circumstances, and it’s up to researchers to decide what to do. Koch explains that“it’s about finding the balance between helping them make those decisions while still having them do the actual work, even if it’s sometimes hard, because they understand that it will pay off in the long run.”

Supporting research computing across domains is also a significant CHTC facilitation accomplishment. Researchers used to need a programming background to apply computing to their analyses, which meant the physical sciences typically dominated large-scale computational analyses. Over the years, computing has become a lot more accessible. More researchers in the life sciences, social sciences, and humanities, have access to community software tools they can apply to their research problems. “It’s not about a user’s level of technical skill or what kind of science they do,” Koch says. It’s about asking, “are you using computing, and do you need help expanding?” CHTC’s ability to pull in researchers across new disciplines has been rewarding and beneficial. “When new disciplines start using computing to tackle their problems, they can do some new, interesting research to contribute to their fields,” Koch notes.

Democratizing Access

CHTC’s success can inspire other campuses to rethink their research computing operations to support their researchers better and innovate. Recognized nationally and internationally as an expert in HTC and facilitation, CHTC’s approach has started to make its way onto other campus computing centers.

CHTC efforts aim to bring broader access to HTC systems. “CHTC has enabled access to computing to a broad spectrum of researchers on campus,” Lombardi explains, “and we strive to help researchers and organizations implement throughput computing capacity.” CHTC is part of national and international efforts to bring that level of computing to other communities through partnerships with organizations, such as the Campus Cyberinfrastructure (CC*) NSF program.

The CC* program supports campuses across the country that wish to contribute computing capacity to the Open Science Pool (OSPool). These institutions are awarded a grant, and in turn, they agree to donate resources to the OSPool, a mutually beneficial system to democratize computing and make it more accessible to researchers who might not have access to such capacity otherwise.

The RCF team meets with researchers weekly from around the world (including Africa, Europe, and Asia). They hold OSG Office Hours twice a week for one-on-one support and provide training at least twice a month for new users and on special topics.

For other campuses to follow in CHTC’s footsteps, they can start implementing facilitation first, even before a campus has any computing systems. In some cases, such as on smaller campuses, they might not even have or need to have a computing center. Having facilitators is crucial to providing researchers with individualized support for their projects.

The next step would be for campuses to look at how they currently support their researchers, including examining what they’re currently doing and if there’s anything they’d want to do differently to communicate this ethic of supporting researchers.

Apart from the impact that research computing facilitators have had on the research community, Koch notes what this job means to her, “[w]orking for a more mission-driven organization where I feel like I’m enabling other people’s research success is so motivating.” Now, almost ten years later, the CHTC has gone from having roughly one hundred research groups using the capacity it provides to having several hundred research groups and thousands of users per year. “Facilitation will continue to advise and support these projects to advance the big picture,” Lombardi notes, “we’ll always be available to researchers who want to talk to someone about how CHTC resources can advance their work!”