Foundation endows science department with competitive grant

The National Science Foundation has awarded UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics a major grant, allowing the college to buy a High-Powered Computer (HPC) for more elevated research capabilities.

The grant, worth $950,000, will exponentially speed up computational time and facilitate a better learning environment.

Lars Grabow, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, is one of the writers of the proposal UH sent to the NSF for the HPC.

He believes that the computer will greatly influence his department.

“I think the CPU will be a pretty excellent recourse,” Grabow said. “It will be good to have easy access to more resources available on campus. What my field is studying is very computational heavy, so it allows us to do more research.”

Chemistry professor Eric Bittner said the process to get the grant was highly competitive and time consuming, taking almost a full year from the drafts of the project to the arrival of the HPC on campus.

“It took about six to nine months to write,” Bittner said. “Then, it took about five or six months for the review process at the NSF. We have to go through a lot of rigmarole to order things on campus.  It takes 6 months just to push through purchasing. In addition, the computer company has to build it custom, so it takes about a year.”

The HPC, which is currently in boxes on campus, will be used by anyone funded by NSF and graduate students, including doctorate students, professors and even some undergraduate students.

“You usually compete against the top universities in the country for these grants,” Bittner said. “Everyone wants his or her slice of the pie. You just have to fight for it. The panel might review 50 submissions, and half of them are perfect. You cannot just be good, you have to be better than the best and be lucky.”

The group is composed of professors in six fields: physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, chemical and mechanical engineering.

The largest challenge facing the group was the specific language and details in the project before they got the grant. Bittner believes their organized pitch was the key to their successful deal.

“It wasn’t so much the word choice, because writing the science part was easy,” Bittner said. “However, coordinating (and) managing the business side was difficult. We had to make sure we knew who would manage everything and allocate recourses, which we spent a lot of time doing. I think that is what sold the instrument- that we carefully thought through the details.”

Chemistry postgraduate Kush Patel is also studying Organic Photovoltaics (Solar Cells) with Professor Bittner, his doctoral adviser. The research involves looking at simulations that could take days to complete.

“With a newer, more powerful computer, we can simulate at more precise time increments or larger simulations that more closely model actual solar cells,” Patel said. “With an accurate description of model systems, I am hoping to make some headway into this field and help develop cheaper and more efficient solar cells. The new computer gives me a chance to explore different methodologies and develop faster simulation algorithms.”

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