Campaign aims to recruit more software engineers for research

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

The University of Washington and three other universities have launched an effort to bolster 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, has announced the creation of the Virtual Institute for Scientific Software this week. The institute’s four inaugural centers will be housed at UW, Cambridge University, Georgia Tech and Johns Hopkins University.

Each of the centers will receive $2 million per year for the next five years to recruit software engineers and computer scientists who can help meet the increasingly complex and data-centric challenges facing researchers today.

“Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Institute for Scientific Software is at the heart of our efforts to harness exceptional talent to solve uniquely challenging problems in science and society,” said Elizabeth Young McNally, executive vice president of Schmidt Futures, said in a press release. “Developing robust, well-designed software is an essential public service when software supports projects to make the world a better place.”

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

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

Beck, Connolly, and Stone provided answers to our questions about the new UW Software Engineering Center via email. Here is the Q&A, edited for length and clarity:

Q: How will Schmidt Futures funding be used?

A: “We will be hiring a diverse team of five software engineers at all levels, in addition to two senior software engineers in leadership positions. This would be seven engineers in total, 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 conjunction with an existing team of 14 data scientists. The eScience Institute is the nexus of applied data science at UW and was founded in 2008 by Ed Lazowska to promote the adoption of what would eventually be called data science in the arts, humanities , engineering and science.

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

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

“Previously, there wasn’t really a way to provide a home for this kind of software engineering work. In the SSEC, software engineers will have a place to work on a variety of software projects that can bring transformational changes to the fields of science and engineering, and where they will have pathways for career development, improvement skills and mentorship.

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

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

“There are many areas of research that will be supported by SSEC both within UW and among researchers around the world who are supported by the Schmidt Futures Foundation. These areas of interest include, but are not limited to, research on biodiversity, protein structure and function, clean energy technologies, bio-imaging, how our memory works, as well as the structures and the composition of the universe.

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

“The transition from academia to industry has always been a one-way street. With SSEC, we hope to bring some of this expertise back into academia, not only to write better software, but to accelerate the discoveries that will be possible from the flood of experimental data benefiting all fields of science and technology. ‘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 especially interested to hear how the new project will focus on the composition of the universe…

A: “A field recently supported by Schmidt Futures through the LINCC project, and the one that fits the software engineering need well, 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 a supernova explosion is a huge computational challenge. Solving this challenge will require new algorithmic approaches and software platforms capable of analyzing huge amounts of potentially noisy and incomplete data. If we can do this, we can use the brightnesses and colors of the supernova and their host galaxies to estimate their distances and thus 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 meet these challenges – accelerating science.

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

A: “Previously, there was no central home or community for software engineers working on research software across multiple disciplines at UW. In the SSEC, software engineers will work alongside their peers and have pathways for career development, skills enhancement, and mentorship in addition to working on transformative science and engineering projects. So in that respect it’s entirely new.

“That said, these new software engineers will join an existing team of data scientists at the eScience Institute, allowing us to fully integrate with researchers – from the start of prototyping new algorithms and data-intensive approaches to deploy sustainable software solutions to entire communities of researchers.”


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