Interview: Thomas Allen
Blue Waters – Thomas Allen
Kenny: So today I’m with Thomas, who is one of six of the NCSA Blue Waters Fellows. Hi Thomas, how are you doing?
Thomas: Hi, I’m doing good.
K: So Thomas, would you like to open with, what is your research exactly?
T: Sure, so I am in Nancy Makri’s group on campus here at Illinois, and we focus on quantum dynamics. So we’re interested in studying particularly their applications to chemistry, so we’re interested in studying things like chemical reactions, and molecular interactions on a very detailed, accurate level; trying to understand how those processes happen and what kind of insights we can get to maybe apply that to experimental work, or synthesis work, or something like that in other branches of chemistry.
K: Did your undergraduate (studies) lead you to do this work?
T: Yeah, to some extent. I actually did some experimental biochemistry when I was in undergrad for research, which is kind of different from what I do now. I’m more in theory and simulation. But, definitely my experiences taking courses in undergrad, things like that, learning about physical chemistry, learning about quantum mechanics, got me really interested in those topics. I wanted to kind of pursue that in grad school, and this was kind of the place I found that had a lot of opportunities to do that, and in particularly, Nancy’s research was really interesting to me, from that standpoint.
K: Cool, so you’re here at U of I with their graduate program, but specifically, you are currently also a Blue Waters Fellow. Can you tell me what the interview process was like for that?
T: So, in the process of getting the fellowship, I believe it was submission based, a little bit like some of the other NSF fellowships, which can have a two part application. There’s a description of your research, and also a personal statement kind of document.
K: So kind of like applying for a grant?
T: Yeah! It’s a lot like applying for a grant, or applying for a one of the NSF graduate fellowships. Kind of similar, at least in terms of total length and stuff like that. And of course the research application is this, ‘explain what you’re doing, why it’s important, and why Blue Waters is a good fit for you’, and the personal part is to a kind of explain your background, and give them some perspective on you as a candidate. So I applied for that, I actually, I guess I will say that I applied for this twice, the first time I didn’t actually get it, but they encouraged me to try again, and reapply. Part of their graduate program here in chemistry, involves something called an ORP, Original Research Proposal, where you kind of propose research, and then you get feedback from the department, kind of like an anonymous reviewers on that. After my first attempt at coming in the fellowship I did that, because it was a part of the program where I was at. I think it was actually pretty helpful for me, because I got some sense of how to more specifically address things these people funding grants and stuff would be looking for. So I was able to apply some of that in this second round, and that’s what I think helped me get it this time.
K: Where you at U of I for the first proposal as well?
T: Yes, I’ve been here for my graduate career, the whole thing.
K: Now, that you have gotten the fellowship, or are a part of the fellowship, has there been at any point, felt like there was any added pressure to your research, or any higher expectations?
T: Maybe a little bit from my own personal kind of expectations for myself. You know, it’s definitely an honor to have the fellowship, and to be recognized by that, and so in addition to obviously wanting to do well on the research for my own career, and for my advisor and stuff, I also want to have something I can kind of present that’s tangible to the fellows and the advisory board. But I wouldn’t say it’s been a negative thing, it’s just that it’s like I said, it’s kind of an honor, and it’s something I am conscious of, doing this research and working towards finishing these projects.
K: So how is it working with Blue Waters, as in comparison with before you were with the fellowship and now?
T: It’s been really nice working with them. We did have a little bit of supercomputer time before this group. One of the big things that changed being part of the fellows, is that we have access to kind of a point of contact, like a dedicated kind of person here at NCSA who can talk to about (our work), and who you know is somewhat familiar with the domain we’re working in. I’m working with Victor Anisimov, and a little bit some other people, and that’s been really nice, because it’s provided me a way to ask questions, instead of going into a ticketing system, or posting on some bulletin board somewhere, I can actually specifically email someone and ask a specific question, and I hear back really quickly from them, and I can talk to them about particular aspects of my research, and they’re willing to try and understand what I’m trying to do, what my goals are, help me get there; which has been one of the nicest features, because it’s not something that, unless like here, you get one of the big grants, like a PRAC (Petascale Computing Resource Allocations) or something, it’s not something that you have, you just maybe have computer time somewhere. You know, it’s just you kind of go through the same queue as everybody else.
K: So it definitely sounds like an added benefit.
T: Yeah, I’m really enjoying that part of it.
K: Lastly, to kind of wrap things up, are there any new avenues or ideas that Blue Waters has been able to present you with? Anything that you’ve been inspired with since joining?
T: Yeah, I think for me it was really, kind of an experience to get together at the supercomputing conference. So they sent all the fellows to SC15 this past year.
K: Oh, ok.
T: It was not necessarily focused on my particular domain of research. I had gone to ACS Conference and other things too, which are more chemistry oriented, but this one was more on the computing side, but it was interesting to see the kind of the things people were doing, and to get a good sense of how to improve some of the more of the just coding aspects of the project, and get more performance out of it. And that’s something that’s actually really important for our work, because we’re doing very challenging simulations and there’s a lot of computational requirements. So it’s been kind of exciting to work with people who are leaders in the field of these really big high performance simulations and things like that.
K: That sounds very exciting, and thank you for taking the time with me to have this interview today.
T: Well yeah, thanks for having me.
K: Thank you!