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Marine Life Research Anchors High-End Computing at Seaside HBCU

Marine Life Research Anchors High-End Computing at Seaside HBCUIt’s not often that small, private liberal arts colleges seek out computing resources normally associated with major research universities. When officials at historically Black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., took on the challenge of joining the elite Internet2 consortium of colleges and universities, it had to prove to the National Science Foundation (NSF) that researchers at the college could benefit from the ultra high-speed computer network connection that comes with being an Internet2 institution.  
In addition to joining with nearby Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to seek high-performance computing funding from NSF, Bethune-Cookman leveraged a unique research arrangement with a scientist from the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As a result of the college’s positioning, the NSF approved and began to fund a $173,276 two-year grant to Bethune-Cookman and Embry-Riddle that is establishing Internet2 connections to serve both institutions, the school and the NSF has announced.
“The award opens a broad path for research ventures in the sciences, especially in marine science,” says Dr. Theodore Nicholson Sr., the chair of the science and mathematics division at Bethune-Cookman.
College officials are taking great pride in the NSF award, which was first announced last fall. While it helps to pay for a sponsored Internet2 connection, the award also will enable the substantial expansion of a database and Web site established by Dr. Larry Massey of NOAA that highlights research on the early life stages of marine fishes from the western central Atlantic Ocean. It turns out that Massey had begun a partnership with the college back in 1999 to establish the database and Web site on the NOAA research.
In a previous but unsuccessful effort to join Internet2, Bethune-Cookman had not included Massey’s project in its NSF application. Officials believe Massey’s ichthyoplankton project along with Embry Riddle research projects in meteorology and air traffic management made the difference last fall when the funding was announced.
“Being a collaborative research effort, the ichthyoplankton project was appropriate for NSF to see that the college had a basis for an Internet2 connection,” says Massey, who is a marine biologist by training.
The marine life studies that Massey has converted into computer files is known as ichthyoplankton research, he explains. The work was originally begun by Dr. William Richards, a senior NOAA official and researcher based out of Miami and is considered one of the most extensive data set of its kind. The current goal is to transform the research and the ongoing contributions from the ichthyoplankton research community into an interactive, on-line database accessible to researchers from all over the world.
A significant part of the project will require digitizing of thousands photographs and drawings of the fish species included in the database, Massey says. Digital video images of the fish species are also expected to become part of the database. “The sizes of the files to hold the data are going to be massive. You have to have the capacity of an Internet2 connection to maintain fast and convenient access to the database we’ll develop,” Massey says.
Since the late 1990s, Internet2 has emerged out of a push by leading research universities to share information in a computer network separate from the commercial Internet. The membership of the Internet2 consortium, which is led by 202 universities working with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies, represents leading schools in high-performance computing.
Of the 202 schools considered full members of the Internet2 consortium, only Jackson State University and Florida A&M University are historically Black. Bethune-Cookman and several other HBCUs, including Winston-Salem State, Hampton, Tuskegee and Clark Atlanta universities, are part of the Internet2 community as members whose high-speed access is sponsored by a full Internet2 member. The University of Central Florida in Orlando has sponsored Bethune-Cookman and Embry-Riddle.
Since January, the two institutions have obtained and are testing dedicated 45 Megabit (DS3) high-speed performance network connections with the high-performance national network known as Abilene. Work on the Internet2 phase of the ichthyoplankton research is expected to begin this summer, according to officials. Funding from the Environmental Services Data and Information Management program, which is part of NOAA, is helping to jumpstart the ichthyoplankton research. 
Massey says additional NSF funding will pay for the participation of Bethune-Cookman students who will assist, develop and help maintain the database. The goal of getting undergraduates involved is to expose them to the computer science of scientific database development and management, as well to marine biology and oceanography, according to Bethune-Cookman officials. 
“This kind of experience will give students an edge on getting into a graduate degree program or a boost if they enter the job market,” Massey says.  

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