Expanding computer science for the geosciences

Matthew Woitaszek, NCAR's Computational and Information Systems Lab

Matthew Woitaszek in front of NCAR supercomputer

Matthew Woitaszek is a computer scientist in the Technology Development Division of NCAR's Computational and Information Systems Lab (CISL).


Matthew Woitaszek is now a Web Systems Engineer at Occipital, a computer software company in Boulder, Colorado. (January 2012)

It doesn't take long to figure out that computer scientist Matthew Woitaszek is in his dream job at NCAR, where he spends much of his time collaborating with physical scientists. His goal is to put new computational tools based on supercomputers and cyberinfrastructure into the hands of the research community. During graduate school he would joke about his plan to stand on a street corner near the entrance to NCAR's Mesa Lab, offering free coding in exchange for access to the supercomputers. These days he also gets to test the newest, most advanced computing technologies to see how they could be put to use for Earth system, solar, and space research.

Recently, Matthew's been exploring the TeraGrid, a new nationwide network of supercomputers, data and tools, and related facilities, figuring out how to put it to work on interesting scientific questions. He collaborated with Travis Metcalfe, an astronomer in NCAR's High Altitude Observatory who's developed a computational method for extracting information about the internal structure of stars from data transmitted by NASA's Kepler satellite. Matthew turned Travis's code into a TeraGrid science gateway called AMP (the Asteroseismic Modeling Portal). AMP functions as a Web-based front end to Travis's code, allowing other researchers to run simulations.

"It's exciting to work with Travis to help him leverage our cyberinfrastructure for his cutting-edge research," Matthew says. "It's an example of pairing a computer scientist with a physical scientist to produce a product for the broader community."


What was your first encounter with computer science?

Between third and fourth grade, I turned into a computer geek. I started programming on a Tandy 1000 in BASIC. At that same time, my father worked with mainframes for the Federal Aviation Administration, so my first mainframe was the Tandem Nonstop II. I have a great picture of me as a little third grader in an FAA machine room surrounded by refrigerator-sized computers. That was where my interest in science and technology started.

You wanted to work at NCAR at an early age?

In my eighth grade Earth science class, I saw a video featuring NCAR, highlighting weather prediction using supercomputers. I learned about NCAR back then and it was in the back of my mind. That was really a driving motivation.

In the late '90s and early '00s, I tried applying for summer student jobs at NCAR. But at the time, NCAR's computational lab didn't have student internship programs.

So I did the next best thing, which was to graduate with a master's degree in computer engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)--and then come to the University of Colorado for a computer science Ph.D., with the goal of working with supercomputers at NCAR. CU-Boulder was at the top of my list because of its proximity to NCAR.

What do you like best about your work?

The thing I like the most is the people-a fantastic team who are both specialists in their fields and easy to work with. What's most impressive to me is how we collaborate so well. When we have good ideas, we're able to pull together quickly and get things working.

What would you be doing if you weren't in computer science?

I'd probably look for engineering projects that include field work. I like the idea of working on remote instrumentation. When I was a student at RIT, I worked with a small group to build a weather station and install it on top of the engineering building for our final project. Not only would it be fun to travel, but real-time sensor systems present many challenging engineering problems. Right now, the closest I get to field work is a trip down to our climate-controlled machine room to check on the supercomputers.

Who are your mentors?

My dad influenced my computer side, and my mother is very strong academically. And everywhere along the way I've been surrounded by people who've been exceptionally supportive.

What's on your music player right now?

What I listen to on my headphones while working is probably best described as ambient trance and techno. Kind of a combination of Enya and Enigma.

How do you kick back and let off steam?

I like riding my Yamaha motorcycle and I walk a lot, about eight miles a day. Walking up to NCAR's Mesa Lab is the perfect way to start thinking about work, and the way down is perfect for switching to thinking about the rest of my life. And I play paintball.

What qualities do you think it takes to be successful in your field?

Perseverance is a definite must, as well as creativity and the ability to form a convincing argument and run with it. What's really key is to take academic rigor-hypotheses, data-and come up with a convincing story to tell. That's where the creativity comes in, to take something that looks like a bunch of boring numbers on a sheet and say something interesting and exciting about it that people can understand. For me, the best compliments I ever receive are when papers come back from anonymous journal reviewers that start off by saying, "This is a well-written paper." That is an indication to me that the project was successful-not only did it work out, but I was able to explain it in print to total strangers who liked how it was presented and had positive feedback.

Related Links

Asteroseismic Modeling Portal

CISL's Technology Development Division

Matthew Woitaszek's home page (CU-Boulder)

January 2010


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