Campaign aims to enlist more software engineers for research

David Beck, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington, will lead the Scientific Software Engineering Center at UW’s eScience Institute. (UW Photo)

The University of Washington and three other universities have kicked off an effort to beef up the software engineering resources available to researchers, backed by a $ 40 million commitment from Schmidt Futures.

The philanthropic organization founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, announced the establishment of the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software this week. The institute’s four inaugural centers will be housed at UW, the University of Cambridge, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

Each of the centers will be awarded $ 2 million a year for the next five years to bring on software engineers and computational scientists who can help address the increasingly complex, data-centric challenges that face researchers today.

“Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Institute for Scientific Software is a core part of our efforts to mobilize exceptional talent to solve specific hard problems in science and society,” Elizabeth Young McNally, executive vice president of Schmidt Futures, said in a news release. “Development of robust, well-engineered software is a critical public service when the software supports projects to make the world better.”

Each software center will have a faculty director, a center engineering lead and a team of software engineers and computational scientists. UW’s Scientific Software Engineering Center, or SSEC, will be part of the university’s eScience Institute.

David Beck, a chemical engineering professor at UW, will serve as the center’s principal investigator. Other members of the leadership team include astronomer Andy Connolly, UW’s associate vice provost for data science and eScience Institute director; and Sarah Stone, executive director of the eScience Institute.

Beck, Connolly and Stone provided answers to our questions about the UW’s new software engineering center via email. Here’s the Q&A, edited for length and clarity:

Q: How will the funding from Schmidt Futures be used?

A: “We will hire a diverse team of five software engineers across grades, in addition to two senior software engineers in leadership positions. This would be seven total engineers, in addition to several others in roles such as data scientists and human-centered design engineers.

“The SSEC is part of the eScience Institute and will work in collaboration with an existing team of 14 data scientists. The eScience Institute is the applied data science nexus at UW and was founded in 2008 by Ed Lazowska to promote the adoption of what would eventually be called data science across the arts, humanities, engineering and science. ”

Q: Have there already been requests for software engineering help? Can you talk about initial priorities?

A: “We know from surveying the UW community that there is a pent-up demand for more than 35 software engineers across a range of application spaces from astronomy, biology, chemistry… medicine, nursing, oceanography… through zoology. In all of these cases there is funding in hand at UW, from a variety of sources including government grants.

“Prior to now, there hasn’t really been a way to offer a home for that kind of software engineering work to be done. In the SSEC, software engineers will have a place to work on a variety of software projects that can bring transformational change to areas of science and engineering, and where they will have pathways for career development, skill enhancement and mentorship.

David Beck, Andy Connolly and Sarah Stone are members of the leadership team for the Scientific Software Engineering Center at the University of Washington’s eScience Institute. (UW Photos)

“Our initial priority is to get top software engineering talent on board, particularly in the leadership roles. That said, we recognize that your question was in regard to projects. As SSEC is part of eScience, there is an existing strength in data-intensive science that will be reflected in the initial projects the SSEC takes on. That is, they will all likely be driven by the need for scalable tools for data-intensive problems like deep learning and AI.

“There are many research fields that will be supported by SSEC both within the UW and among researchers worldwide who are supported by the Schmidt Futures Foundation. These foci include, but are not limited to, research in biodiversity, protein structure and function, clean-energy technologies, bio-imaging, how our memory works, and the structures and makeup of the universe.

“We see an incredible opportunity to harness the software engineering expertise within the Seattle community (and more broadly) to address these transformative areas of research.

“The transition from academia to industry has traditionally been a one-way street. With SSEC, we hope to bring some of this expertise back into academia, not just to write better software but to accelerate the discoveries that will be possible from the flood of experimental data benefitting all areas of science and engineering. Software has changed the way we shop, the way we interact, the way we communicate in our society. What if it could help uncover the fundamental laws that explain how our world and the universe in which it resides formed and evolved? ”

Q: I’m particularly interested in hearing how the new project will focus on the makeup of the universe…

A: “An area just recently supported by Schmidt Futures through the LINCC project, and one that is well-matched with the need for software engineering, is astronomy. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory will generate tens of petabytes of data and detect 30 billion stars and galaxies.

“Sifting through this wealth of data to identify unusual or transient events such as the explosion of a supernova is a massive computational challenge. Solving this challenge will require new algorithmic approaches and software platforms that can analyze tremendous amounts of potentially noisy and incomplete data. If we can do that, we can use the brightnesses and colors of the supernova and their host galaxies to estimate their distances and thereby determine the rate at which the universe is expanding, for example.

“The tools that software engineers use and develop in industry (spark, dask, etc.) could be brought to bear on these challenges – accelerating the science.”

Q: How will the new hires give a boost to the staff currently involved in software engineering services for research purposes?

A: “Prior to now, there has not been a central home and community for software engineers working on research software across multiple disciplines at UW. In the SSEC, software engineers will work alongside their peers and will have pathways for career development, skill enhancement and mentorship in addition to working on transformative science and engineering projects. So in that regard, it is entirely new.

“That said, these new software engineers will join an existing team of data scientists in the eScience Institute, enabling us to integrate thoroughly with researchers – from the start of prototyping new data-intensive algorithms and approaches to deploying sustainable software solutions to whole communities of researchers. ”

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