Help wanted: On-campus supercomputing behemoth – you know, the place that invented the Web browser – seeks highly motivated student interns to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.
Sound interesting? If so, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’ “Students Pushing Innovation” program – known as “SPIN” for short – might be the ideal internship for the enterprising undergraduate who likes to experiment but also works well with others.
The program was created by NCSA staffers who wanted to cultivate a nurturing environment for undergraduate students to engage in interdisciplinary research, collaboration and innovation, said Colleen Bushell, a senior research programmer at NCSA and the manager of SPIN.
“Our experience has taught us that good ideas can fizzle if they’re not nurtured through the many phases of development and promotion,” said Bushell, who also doubles as a SPIN mentor. “It’s our intention to help students by dedicating time to their ideas so they don’t get derailed. We also wanted to give them a space where they can experiment and explore ideas on their own and take some chances, because that’s often how the real breakthroughs occur.”
According to Bushell, SPIN’s mission is to provide the infrastructure and cultural atmosphere to inspire and support creative thinkers whose interests span the arts and sciences.
“We try to get a wide spectrum of students, and we have a history of working with students and faculty members in a variety of areas,” Bushell said. “We go to every department on campus to promote the program and recruit students, and try to get them engaged in what we’re doing.”
Students are introduced to NCSA project areas and mentors through events held early each fall semester. Interested students from any major on campus can apply by proposing a project that addresses a challenge described by an NCSA mentor. The projects focus on a variety of challenges in high-performance computing, Internet applications, analysis of big data and new methods for interacting with technology.
Out of 85 applicants, 15 new interns were selected last fall, with five returning from the previous semester.
The internship spans the fall and spring semesters, and NCSA provides financial support in the form of fellowships, along with assistance with computing, programming and other technical needs, Bushell said.
Donna Cox, a professor of art and design and the director of the eDream Institute, is a SPIN mentor. She said the program is an excellent example of how to build a community of students who have unusual ideas but are also looking for a unique experience to test those ideas.
“Our problems today are at the intersection of disciplines, and the grand challenges require us to look across disciplines, which makes NCSA the perfect high-tech environment to bring students together, mentor them and give them some real-world problems to solve,” she said. “I don’t know how many areas on campus draw from that many different disciplines, but I think that’s one of the valuable parts of the program.”
Cox, a scientific visualization artist who also directs the Advanced Visualization Lab at NCSA, said SPIN affords students an opportunity that goes beyond the traditional classroom experience.
“We are augmenting the experience of these students, some of whom are just beginning to learn how to do research,” she said. “In effect, NCSA becomes a community for them to exchange and test ideas. So part of it is teaching them the process of research, as well as how to go out and see everything that’s been done and then bring that knowledge in and innovate from there.”
Colter Wehmeier, a sophomore from Palos Park, Ill., majoring in architecture, said he appreciates the mix of formal education with his architecture classes while also being able to experiment as part of his SPIN internship.
“Architecture is a very diverse field, and there are a number of different disciplines within it,” he said. “I look at my internship as another facet of my architecture education, and I’m happy to have the experience, because it will undoubtedly help me in the future.”
Kiersten Jabusch, a senior from Johnsburg, Ill., majoring in human-computer interaction, worked on a project called “Moving Stories.” The focus was on improving motion control by mapping human body movement to help create better computer-generated animation and more realistic virtual worlds.
“It was a challenge, but it was a wonderful opportunity in that it allowed me to employ a wide range of both my academic and personal interests,” she said.
David Zmick, a sophomore from Houston majoring in computer science, studied the real-time trends of the social media website Twitter for part of his research.
“SPIN is a great program and it’s a perfect complement to school, so I feel very fortunate to be a part of it,” he said.
Austin Lin, a senior from Lake Forest, Ill., majoring in theater, said the SPIN internship was an invaluable experience.
“Anytime you’re working with people who are on the cutting edge of their field is incredible,” he said. “With technology interwoven into pretty much every area of life, it’s a really interesting time, and the research that NCSA is doing reflects that.”
Lin said his ability to bring an arts-influenced perspective to highly technical projects was an exciting use of interdisciplinary skills.
“You can almost no longer do art without technology,” he said. “In many ways, it allowed me to take the skills I learned in stage management and apply them to a much more technologically focused area. I get to blend my computer science skills and what I’ve learned in theater and apply those two skill sets together for a project.”
Interning with the SPIN program also afforded him a chance to work with people from different backgrounds.
“I think as much exposure to different ideas as possible is really valuable, and different ways to think about and approach problems is good,” he said. “I also think it’s great that NCSA is pushing to have undergrads involved. Research-focused organizations sometimes are a closed door to undergrads, and for them to seek us out is great.”
Lin credits the experience with helping him land an internship at the White House last summer.
“I was a technology intern in the Presidential Personnel Office,” he said. “I wasn’t doing any artistically oriented work there, but the skills I acquired at NCSA were immensely helpful. Just having the opportunity to intern at NCSA was extremely important because it showed that I had worked with professionals in the field.”