ICER Welcomes New Director of User Support: Dr. Dirk Colbry

Click the image above or the link here to watch the video interview.

ICER Communications recently chatted with Dr. Dirk Colbry, who joined the team in a new role as the Director of User Support. Dirk is still a faculty member in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering (CMSE) and enjoys his work designing and teaching courses. He also conducts research and supports a small research lab (SEE-Insight) that develops tools to accelerate scientific image understanding.

Tell us about yourself! What experiences have led you to ICER?

I was a Ph.D. student at MSU in 2005 when the MSU High-Performance Computing Center (HPCC) was formed. My dissertation research investigated 3D face recognition and required a lot of computing, so I was an early user of the HPCC. One experiment required me to compare 5,000 3D faces with each other resulting in around 12,500,000 comparisons that required 23 years of computer time. Back then, there were not as many limits in place, so I submitted everything I had and basically took down the entire HPCC. Andy Keen had to come and talk to me about the proper use of the machine, and from then on, I was hooked on large-scale computing.

After a couple of postdocs, my spouse and I had an opportunity to move back to MSU, and in 2009 I re-joined the MSU HPCC team (soon called ICER) as the first Research Consultant. Research Consulting was a new concept, and I had to make up the job as I went. It was quickly established that my job was to form connections with the researchers and help them streamline their workflow to minimize “the mean time to science.” I like to say it is my job to increase MSU’s kilo-science per second. Which is a way to say that science should always come first.

In 2015, after a brief sabbatical in industry, I joined CMSE. This newly formed department was specifically designed to bring together researchers that use large-scale computing and mathematics to solve problems in science and engineering. I had the unique opportunity to design, develop and teach many new courses for the department. While at CMSE, I also continued my role as a research facilitator and took on a few leadership roles in national organizations. Ultimately, this resulted in me being a PI on an NSF-funded program (called CyberAmbassadors) to teach Research Facilitators professional skills they need to effectively support projects.

How would you describe your new role as Director of User Support?

My job at ICER is to organize and coordinate our mission to use computation to support discovery across MSU. The hardware and software provided by the HPCC are outstanding resources that can accelerate and transform the academic goals of our faculty. However, just providing computing hardware is insufficient. Although researchers are experts in their fields, it is unreasonable to assume that they also have advanced computer training or, if they do, have the time to understand the custom aspects and nuances of the MSU HPCC systems. The ICER user support team are computational experts trained to work closely with MSU researchers to provide the necessary knowledge and expertise needed for researchers to utilize computational resources quickly and efficiently.

What is your vision for user support at ICER? How will you implement your vision?

I firmly believe that we act as a resource for researchers to accelerate their discoveries. To do our jobs effectively, we need to not only help researchers solve problems but also build and maintain relationships. Although many problems are technical, often the biggest problem relates to communication between people. Therefore, I will work with the ICER user support team to improve communications at all levels. This includes asynchronous communication such as documentation, group communication such as training and individual communication through email, office hours and one-on-one consultations. My hope is that we build a friendly and collaborative environment that encourages new disciplines to take advantage of these free campus resources.