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New Faces: Chong Chen

The UNLV National Supercomputing Institute’s latest hire will help researchers leverage the tremendous capabilities of the Cherry Creek II.

People  |  May 22, 2017  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Chong Chen

Chong Chen, UNLV National Supercomputing Institute high-performing computing applications specialist. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

 

Only a few lucky folks around the world ever have access to the level of high-performance computing (HPC) that supercomputers like the Cherry Creek II (CCII) at UNLV can provide. Chong Chen is one of them — and not only can he access it, he actually has the power to amplify it. As the UNLV National Supercomputing Institute’s new HPC applications specialist, Chen will explore the possibilities CCII has to offer and pave the paths that will help UNLV researchers speed toward solutions faster than ever before.

Why UNLV?

The supercomputer here is very strong, and few universities have their own, so that’s attractive. Some universities have to rent supercomputing capabilities, so UNLV is different. Here, we have the CCII. The CCII has 112 computer nodes and a state-of-the-art accelerator, so it’s excellent equipment. Some faculty in astronomy, physics, and chemistry are already using it, but we can provide these resources to lots of faculty in other disciplines as well, like those biology and electrical engineering. UNLV’s location is attractive as well.

Had you visited Las Vegas before your interview?

Actually, no, but I knew of the city. It’s world-famous. I was a software engineer in Silicon Valley before I came here. That place is very active but too crowded and really expensive. Now that I’m in Las Vegas, I see that it offers a lot of conveniences. You can get to everything quickly, and it’s not too crowded.

Where did you grow up, and do you miss anything from home?

I grew up in a small town in the southeast part of China called Shangrao. I miss the peacefulness and quietness of my home sometimes, but since I’ve been living in other countries for the last 16 years, I’m past it for the most part.

Tell me about a time you did something daring.

Studying abroad was pretty daring. When I came to the U.S. in 2008, I had to learn a different language. It was challenging. There weren’t many Chinese students here then, and a phone call between China and America wasn’t very common. Getting a visa was also very hard, and to come here then meant you couldn’t go back home for several years, which made those first two years hard. But nowadays, just about 10 years later, it’s much easier to keep in touch.

What do you do in your role at UNLV?

I’m here to help faculty learn about and use the supercomputer. My work is focused on making applications for the CCII that accelerate research. If there’s no existing application on the CCII that makes sense for a particular faculty member’s research, I would work with our faculty to develop one. The university has a Top Tier plan that focuses a lot on research, and for many research projects, computation resources are required. For example, in medical research, you need large computation resources for DNA sequencing.

What inspired you to go into this line of work?

Working with a supercomputer is pretty cool. It’s a huge room with lots of racks, and you know your work is on the cutting edge.

What can’t you work without?

I just need one computer. I can log in remotely with just one.

What’s the biggest challenge in your line of work?

The biggest challenge here is understanding the various research projects and developing solutions that assist faculty in what they do. I’m good at computing, but just because I know computers doesn’t mean I understand all of science. So I need to understand the science related to a particular research need in order to implement the appropriate computer language and solution. It’s challenging on both sides because both sides need to understand a bit about what the other does in order to do our jobs.

What’s the biggest misconception about your field?

People tend to assume that I work on software, or security, or artificial intelligence, or some kind of hacking. That’s not what I do, but what I do is very useful for research. There are lots of different subdisciplines in computing, and what I’m doing is more scientific computing — working with a physicist, chemist, or other faculty member to develop code.

What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you’ve worked?

This is much different from other academic environments I’ve been in. I especially like the large size of the campus. It’s different from what I experienced at the University of Dayton. There are lots of people here and lots of restaurants and shops around UNLV. I like this kind of campus.

The kind of work I do here is also different from what I was doing before. In my industry, when you work for private entities, you’re subject to confidentiality agreements, and most companies forbid you to release information on your projects and products. In academia, you have more time to do research, and you can publish your findings. If I have a good idea, I want to share it.