$1.1M NSF grant to fund statewide cyberinfrastructure project

Penn State researchers will lead the efforts to bring cyberinfrastructure-based resources and services to under-resourced institutions of higher education in Pennsylvania
Illustration of a cyber network
Credit: Olemedia/Getty Images

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Researchers at the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences (ICDS), together with collaborators at other institutions within Pennsylvania, have been awarded approximately $1.1 million in funding under the U.S. National Science Foundation Campus Cyberinfrastructure program to develop a commonwealth-wide secure network and related cyberinfrastructure to interconnect Pennsylvania colleges and universities.

“Contemporary scientific research generates staggering volumes of data which must be transferred quickly and securely among collaborators and then on to be analyzed, stored and shared,” said Jenni Evans, director of ICDS, professor of meteorology and atmospheric science, and principal investigator on the project. “Unfortunately, many under-resourced institutions simply do not have the networking infrastructure necessary for data-intensive collaborations, accessing remote instrumentation and utilizing high-performance computing resources.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project is titled “The Pennsylvania Science DMZ supporting under-resourced colleges and universities (PA Science DMZ).” In computer networks, a DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is a network that separates one network from other untrusted networks such as the internet. According to Evans, the PA Science DMZ will support science-driven research and education at under-resourced Pennsylvania colleges and universities by enabling and enhancing access to cyberinfrastructure resources and services — work that ICDS is uniquely positioned to lead.

“As part of Pennsylvania’s only land-grant university, founded with a mission of teaching, research, service and extension in support of the people and industries of the commonwealth, ICDS has established a strategic goal to enable an environment that allows broad access to advanced computation and complex data,” Evans said. “The first element of this strategy is to break down barriers to collaborations in research and pedagogy across Pennsylvania institutions of higher education.”

The project aims to address challenges identified in a planning grant that proposal partner KINBER, a nonprofit organization committed to working with communities, governments, businesses and schools to advance digital equity and inclusion, was awarded in 2022, Evans said. Other project collaborators include faculty from Swarthmore College, Lafayette College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the Penn State University Digital Foundry at New Kensington (DFNK). Together, they will work to implement the planned PA Science DMZ to improve the cross-institutional research projects that have been identified as being hampered by the lack of secure connectivity between institutions.

“KINBER and its new affiliate KeystoneREN are excited to be collaborating on this important cyberinfrastructure project,” said co-principal investigator (co-PI) Nathan Flood, president and chief executive officer of KINBER. KeystoneREN is a wholly owned subsidiary of KINBER that provides broadband connectivity, fosters collaboration andadvances research and education networks. “This award implements KINBER’s National Science Foundation planning grant work and commitment to create a sustainable, expandable statewide high-performance science and research network in support of under resourced colleges and universities.”

According to Wayne Figurelle, ICDS assistant director and co-PI, the planning and proposal effort has established an energized and committed scholarly team. The researchers will use the cyberinfrastructure improvements to facilitate an initial set of research collaborations among the participating institutions, identified during planning.

“These resources will also help benefit a rapidly expanding pool of researchers with novel science and education needs. In addition, since the project has a goal for long-term sustainability, the project will enable further scientific and educational advances in the future,” Figurelle said.

In this phase, the PA Science DMZ will consist of a network backbone provided by KeystoneREN, networking equipment and performance tools at each participating campus, and specific science applications for each partner institution. The project goal is to showcase a path towards addressing the digital divide and the cyberinfrastructure needs of the participating campuses. According to Evans, the project will reduce the barriers for these schools to collaborate and participate in contemporary data-driven scientific practices, leading to changes in their approach to campus information technology, science research and educational programs.

“The proposed network will facilitate broader collaboration among institutions resulting in greater diversity of research teams, new avenues of inquiry and synergistic contributions,” said co-PI Jason Simms, manager of research computing at Swarthmore College. “This project will begin the process of creating digital equity across institutions in the commonwealth, especially for those that are under-resourced.”

The PA Science DMZ will serve as an implementation model for a diverse range of under- resourced institutions, including community colleges, colleges, universities and both public and private K-12 schools throughout the state, according to the researchers.

“The creation of a statewide research network and attendant infrastructure will undoubtedly result in yet unknown broader impacts as it drives subsequent curriculum innovations, spurs additional investment in hardware and software, and enables skill development for students, faculty and cyberinfrastructure professionals at participating institutions,” Evans said. “In this way, this project serves as a foundation to enable a range of downstream activities that will build upon its success.”

Frederick Adkins, faculty in the Mathematics and Computer Sciences Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and IUP STEAMSHOP Director, is also a co-PI on this project.

“We are ready and excited to leverage the grant's new cyberinfrastructure resources and are looking forward to seeing its impact on our data-intensive applications and science research programs,” Adkins said.

Interested parties are invited to reach out to the Institute for Computational Data Sciences to learn more.