Grants to enhance students’ experiences with campus tech

Michael Cato is in charge of newly received grants from the National Science Foundation to upgrade faculty research capabilities. The changes range from internet enhancements to joining new networks. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Michael Cato is in charge of newly received grants from the National Science Foundation to upgrade faculty research capabilities. The changes range from internet enhancements to joining new networks. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations
Michael Cato is in charge of newly received grants from the National Science Foundation to upgrade faculty research capabilities. The changes range from internet enhancements to joining new networks. Photo By: Vassar College Media Relations

A lot is being done to improve the sciences at Vassar: We have a new building well under construction, Sanders Physics is done and modernized and Olmsted is currently undergoing the same treatment. Recently, Vassar added another factor into the scientific mix when we received two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants, worth a combined total of $624,000.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950. “To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity and welfare; to secure the national defense,” states the NSF Mission Statement about the organization’s goals. Vassar is one of the many schools which receives grants from NSF, which are put towards faculty research projects.

According to Cato, the process of applying for the grants began in the spring. “Vassar has extensive research enterprise with NSF funded grants,” explained Cato; he remarked that in the past ten years, Vassar faculty have received over nine million dollars total in NSF grants to fund their research. Cato noted that when applying for the two grants just received, he went directly to the professors and asked them how the grant money would help their research. These answers eventually became the proposal sent into the NSF.

It is not, however, the faculty alone who benefit from these grants. “There is a tightly knit connection between faculty and students in research,” said Cato. He then elaborated: Students participate in research at Vassar by assisting professors, as well as by conducting their own independent research projects.

In an outline of how the grant money will be used, Cato wrote that the grants will further improve Vassar’s information services. “[They will] fund considerable expansion of the College’s computing capacity and security as part of a larger infrastructure initiative, enabling faculty and students to more effectively participate in large-scale data analysis and Internet-based research collaborations,” he explained.

As an example of how this is relevant, Cato mentioned a professor who used forty seven billion data points for his research on temperature; those data points took two weeks to download onto Vassar’s network. The grant money will go toward initiatives which will eliminate this problem and expedite the process of collecting and analyzing data. Cato explained that in order to do this, “[The larger initiative has plans to] more than double Vassar’s network bandwidth and better position the College to address long-term bandwidth needs.”

In addition to improving the bandwidth, Cato writes that the initiative will help the College interact with other educational institutions across the country. “[We will] gain the capacity for the College to participate in the Internet2 and NYSERNet (New York State Education and Research Network) research & education networks,” wrote Cato.

These are two networks which allow for collaboration among colleges and universities, something vital to the research process as a whole. These networks allow for real-time communication, including consistent updating of data sets, which helps to keep the College’s research completely up to date.

Said Cato, “It was always messy to work in these partnerships, having to manually move and update data.” With the new networks, this is no longer a problem.

“Vassar will have access to computational and analytical resources through regional and national collaborations far beyond anything possible on campus,” wrote Cato.

He added that it is unusual for liberal arts college to have these benefits, and that Vassar is among the first to join the network and establish these connections.

As for what these connections entail, Cato provided an example: “Vassar will be joining eduroam, a service that will allow using a Vassar username and password to access WiFi at more than 150 institutions around the country, and thousands more around the world.”

With all of the data sure to be sent across the new networks, security is also a top priority. As Cato wrote, one of the benefits of the initiative is to be able to concentrate on working with both information and security together. “[We can now] better address research collaboration and information security needs with a cloud-based Identity & Access Management solution,” wrote Cato.

Cato also noted that the NSF actually acknowledged our response of the cloud solution, which is something rare.

“I am really excited that this just opens the door to a world of possibilities,” remarked Cato. And he has good reason to be; the two grants from the NSF will substantially add to the budding of the sciences at Vassar.

Because the initiative carried out via the grants was designed as a framework for the future, Vassar’s already strong research opportunities and projects will only improve moving into the future. The NSF especially realizes the impact of these grants.

Irene Qualters, Director of the Advanced Cyberinfrastructure division at the National Science Foundation, said, “NSF’s investments in campus cyberinfrastructure recognize the increasingly key role campus networks play in scientific discovery and education.”

“These two awards recognize Vassar’s opportunity to address scientific challenges through state of the art technology advances in networking and security,” she added.

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