At the heart of Indiana University’s cyberinfrastructure are the systems and services provided by Research Technologies. One such service is access to world-class research supercomputers that amplify the talents of local and national researchers. In addition to faculty, staff, and graduate student users of the supercomputing systems, roughly 30 percent of IU supercomputer users are undergraduate students from across all campuses.
“Since supercomputers first became available to IU in 1955, we have made them accessible to undergraduates without charge,” said Matt Link, associate vice president of research technologies at IU. “We are very proud of that tradition as it provides students the opportunities to learn how to use advanced technologies that elevate their skillsets to further their education or be well prepared for the job market.”
Asia Sykes, a bio-chemistry major in her second year at IU East, is one such student whose research program has been successful in part due to her work on IU’s supercomputers. With the goal of going to medical school, Sykes uses the supercomputers to study the structure of DNA and RNA and how they react at different temperatures.
“I was born with a genetic illness, and I was told that I’d never live to see my graduation day of high school,” Sykes said. “It’s been a big part of my life, like going to the doctors and things like that, so I’ve always wanted to help people the way that doctors have helped me. And so now I’ve realized that I want to be the person behind the scenes and finding the cures.”
Sykes reached out to her advisor Yu Kay Law about looking for a research opportunity.
“I asked him for a recommendation because I wanted to do research and he said that he actually did research,” Sykes said. “I had no idea that there was research at my campus and so he told me that the research he did, and I was very interested, and he allowed me to start working with him.”
Sykes began her research in March of last year and has already made incredible strides, speaking at the Northwest Theoretical Chemistry Conference at Ohio State in May of last year.
“I was so nervous my first time, but it was awesome,” Sykes said. “That’s when I like truly fell in love with research as being there and being able to share my knowledge of other people because everybody there is there to learn and share their knowledge and everybody there was familiar with the supercomputers.”
In March, Sykes will once again present her research, this time at the National Chemistry Conference in Indianapolis.
“Just being able to share what I’ve learned and be able to bounce ideas off of other people who understand my work is just incredible.”
Tyler Porter, a senior biochemistry major at Indiana University Northwest, also uses IU supercomputers, but in a different capacity. As a physics minor, Porter used the Quartz supercomputer in the fall of 2022 to do research on binary star collisions as a part of his physics research requirement. Although he had no previous supercomputing experience, the process of using the computers gradually became easier, he said.
“At first I was sort of intimidated by the interface,” Porter said. “But after a while it became second nature.”
Porter said how important the supercomputers are, especially for undergrad researchers. “It’s a huge resource that gives access to something that would be impossible for most undergrads. But it’s something we have at IU and allows them to encourage undergrad and graduate research.”
Camille Pushman, an IU senior on the Bloomington campus, is studying to be a genetic entomologist, Pushman used IU’s supercomputers to analyze the DNA of the mountain pine beetle. Her work aims to identify the specific genes that code for body size and development time. This will allow scientists to gain a greater understanding of the beetle’s ecology and, ideally, how to best control them as the pine mountain beetle is one of the most destructive pests in North America.
Pushman’s interest in genetics started in high school, but her interest in entomology began in college while studying crickets in an Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE) Lab—an in-person lab where teachers can set up classes, training labs, and more.
“It was about different stressors that impact crickets’ ability to thrive in their environment,” Pushman said. “So, like a lack of food or an immune challenge, and the different ways that organisms react to their environment is really interesting to me, and what allows them to thrive and reproduce versus die out is a really complex question that I would really like to answer.”
Pushman’s work with the supercomputers began in March 2022 after learning about her advisor, Ryan Bracewell’s, research into the mountain pine beetle.
“At first, it was learning a lot of small pieces of the computer and how to use it, but the more knowledge I’ve gained the more I’ve been able to expand that and utilize different programs and different functionalities of the computers,” Pushman said. “I went from doing really small-scale things in one step at a time to being able to complete big analysis and do multiple steps in one go.”