2016 Award Winners

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Read the news release.

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Outstanding Achievement Award

John Simpson
Digital Humanities Specialist, University of Alberta/WestGrid/Compute Canada

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Receiving an impressive seven nominations, it’s clear social sciences researchers have found a friend in John Simpson. Dr. Simpson was hired in December 2014 as Compute Canada’s first digital humanities (DH) specialist. He has built the tools, training programs and national support framework to meet the unique advanced computing needs of Canada’s DH community, a growing community of users of Compute Canada resources.

With a background in both philosophy and computing, Simpson has shown “leadership and vision in rallying the troops and creating a crucial bridge between the DH community and Compute Canada”, states a nomination letter signed by a six researchers.

They credit Simpson with helping awaken this academic field to the benefits of advanced computing and working with Compute Canada; for example, 45% more DH researchers participated in Compute Canada’s recent SPARC2 consultations. One of Simpson’s biggest contributions has been engaging the community to use Compute Canada Cloud services which has proven more practical for DH scholars than traditional batch-based computing.

He has also fostered stronger linkages between Compute Canada and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, including helping to execute the first-ever Human Dimensions Open Data Challenge.

“John once presented at a DH conference and received a standing ovation from his peers on all the great work he had been doing to help the community,” writes Lindsay Sill, Executive Director of WestGrid. “I’ve heard him referred to as Dynamo. That is an excellent description as there is really something magical about his approach and his effectiveness.”

Compute Canada Award of Excellence

Weiguang Guan
Computer Vision Specialist, SHARCNET
Research Scientist, McMaster University

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In 2009, John Connolly faced two seemingly insurmountable challenges: restructuring McMaster University’s Department of Linguistics and Languages, while also finding time to establish a brain imaging laboratory to study language impairments, including nonverbal autism and acquired brain injury.

“I was in serious need of a highly skilled research engineer capable of dealing with some of the fundamentals of creating a high level electrophysiology lab and facilitating my research goals. That’s when I was introduced to Weiguang – here was someone I could rely on to do the heavy lifting. Suddenly this impossible task became feasible,” Dr. Connolly wrote in nominating Dr. Guan for a Compute Canada Award of Excellence.

The Chair of McMaster’s Department of Linguistics and Languages lauded Dr. Guan’s impressive skill sets, from programming and reprogramming to high-level machine learning and statistical methods: “Some of these topics he was new to, but the speed at which he developed genuine expertise was extraordinary.”

“Reliable, dedicated, patient and generous with his time are just a few of the characteristics that make Dr. Guan a superb team member,” wrote Dr. Connolly.

“My laboratory is now considerably larger than it was and is conducting research that has significant knowledge translation features and is providing students at all levels with skills that will serve them well in the future. Weiguang’s contributions to this achievement have been invaluable.”

Compute Canada Award of Excellence

Minh-Nghia Nguyen
Systems Analyst, Université de Sherbrooke

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It takes an almost unimaginable amount of supercomputing power to develop and demonstrate an algorithm that can beat a human at poker. But researchers at the University of Alberta proved it can be done with access to top tech support and Compute Canada resources.

Minh-Nghia Nguyen was on call at all hours of the day to help the university’s Computer Poker Research Group develop a poker-playing program that can play a statistically perfect game of heads-up limit Texas hold’em, a two-player version of the card game. The experiment represented a milestone in the study of artificial intelligence and game theory.

“Our program, called Cepheus, taught itself how to play the game from scratch. After almost 1000 CPU-years of computation, its performance converged to perfect, unbeatable play,” U of A computer scientist Mike Johanson wrote in his nomination letter.

Dr. Johanson said Nguyen went above and beyond his duties to make sure this three-month experiment had the resources it needed to succeed.

“When our titanic 200-node jobs were submitted to the scheduler, he quickly and manually interceded to rearrange jobs to clear its path.  When individual nodes failed or had scratch drive errors, he would reply almost immediately to our emails (at all hours of the day!) to correct the issues and get us running again, wrote Dr. Johanson. Without this support, our project would certainly have been a long and painful process, if it succeeded at all. “

The research, published last year in Science and in newspapers around the world, demonstrates the potential of artificial intelligence to handle complex real-world scenarios such as national security and healthcare.

Compute Canada Award of Excellence

David Morais
Bioinformatics Specialist, Genome Quebec
System Analyst, Université de Sherbrooke

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Genetics research is moving at lightning speed to bring us faster, better and cheaper diagnostic tests for a range of diseases, including autism, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Bioinformatics expert David Morais is working to accelerate that research by developing practical tools that facilitate easy access to the advanced computing resources essential for analyzing mass amounts of genomics data.

McGill’s Guillaume Bourque, one of three people who nominated Dr. Morais for the award, praised his colleague for working from beginning to end to integrate Galaxy, a popular workflow software platform for genomics, into a new version of the powerful DNA-analysis tool, GenAP. GenAP leverages both the CANARIE high speed network and Compute Canada’s advanced computing resources to facilitate rapid data sharing and reduce the computational bottlenecks associated with processing big data.

“The result, said Dr. Bourque, is a genomic analysis tool that is easy to use even for beginners. It has become the tool of choice for workshops and university courses.”

In his nomination letter, Pierre-Étienne Jacques at Sherbrooke University credited Dr. Morais for helping more than a hundred researchers who may not have otherwise used Compute Canada’s infrastructure. Dr. Jacques said they are currently working to take the Galaxy GenAP platform international to publicize several tools in genomics and genetics developed by Canadian research groups.

Compute Canada Award of Excellence

Hossein Pourreza
High Performance Computing Specialist, University of Manitoba

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Hossein Pourreza knows just what scientists and engineers want—the ability to do more research in less time and with fewer technical headaches. Hossein specializes in overcoming computing hurdles that threaten to delay or even derail years of scientific study in areas as diverse as human health and energy efficiency.

One of his nominators, University of Manitoba Professor Scott Ormiston, recalled Hossein working for hours at a time, and on weekends to help a student struggling with a significant shortage in supercomputing resources.

Five years into his Ph.D. studies, Foad Hassaninejadfarahani hit a roadblock that would have added another year or two to a project in which “getting results and dealing with problems in a timely manner was crucial”, wrote Dr. Ormiston. Foad is developing software to understand fluid and gas interactions, knowledge that could lead to the design of more energy- and cost-efficient heat exchangers in power systems, refrigeration and chemical processing.

To validate his research and complete the project on time, Foad needed about 800 core-years of CPU resources—the equivalent of using a single computer processor continuously for 800 years. That was 90% more capacity than his research group had on hand. With Hossein’s assistance, Foad was able to tap into about 400 core-years of CPU resources from Compute Canada.

Several researchers have become more supercomputer literate thanks to Hossein. Ines Martinez Ramos, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, said Hossein helped her successfully process genomics data that advances our understanding of gut microbiota and the part it plays in health, nutrition and disease.

“Hossein has been an amazing support for my research, wrote Dr. Ramos. I have limited bioinformatics skills and this was my first time working on remote services (and on WestGrid as well), therefore almost every step of the way was new to me…and he kindly explained everything in detail so I could learn the whys of the process.”

Trailblazer Award 2016

Dugan O’Neil
Chief Science Officer, Compute Canada
Professor Simon Fraser University

awards_duganBringing the power of advanced research computing (ARC) to over 10,000 Canadian researchers requires a lot of sophisticated digital  infrastructure. Taking advantage of such capabilities, however, also requires people with the technical, leadership and people skills to make it work for a diverse scientific community that spans engineering, natural sciences, health, social sciences and humanities.

Dr. Dugan O’Neil is such a person. The Chief Science Officer of Compute Canada, and winner of the inaugural Compute Canada Trailblazer Award, is a particle physicist, professor and member of the ATLAS project.  As an accomplished  scientist whose work has relied on advanced computing for over a decade, he has devoted much of his time to understand the computing capabilities other scientists need to produce globally competitive research.

Arthur McDonald, co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics, credits Dr. O’Neil with “helping to ensure the experiments at SNOLAB, including the Canadian-led DEAP and SNO+ projects, have had the resources and technical assistance they need.”

Norbert Haunerland, Associate VP Research at Simon Fraser University (SFU), says Dr. O’Neil ignited his passion for ARC. “Dugan was like an evangelist when he talked about the value of and potential for ARC at SFU and the rest of the country. Not only did he convince me, but he also met with the various communities, from physics and genomics to medicine and social sciences, and got a lot of buy in for an expanded concept for Compute Canada.”

Dr. O’Neil’s involvement with CC began in 2003 as a beta tester of WestGrid resources at SFU and the University of British Columbia. His group has used WestGrid to process hundreds of terabytes of raw data from the DZero experiment at Fermilab, the ATLAS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and to study the elusive Higgs Boson, which gives mass to fundamental particles.

“Dugan is friendly, approachable, passionate and hardworking—and unlike subatomic particles, he’s very organized,” says WestGrid Executive Director Lindsay Sill, who has worked with Dr. O’Neil for nearly nine years. “We have continuously been commended for the excellent science being done that is benefiting Canadians, and this is in large part due to Dugan’s hard work.”

Dr. O’Neil’s long list of accomplishments with CC include leading the Sustainable Planning for Advanced Research Computing  consultations with ARC users to map their future needs, engaged and develop the digital humanities communities and developing new common services for researchers.

Says Sill: “If Dugan had not persevered, we would not have achieved as much as we have today. What continues to amaze me about Dugan is that he’s never satisfied with the status quo. He’s constantly trying to improve things in the pursuit of better science for Canadians.”

Team Choice Award

Maxime Boissonneault 
High Performance Specialist, Calcul Québec/Université Laval

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How fast does Maxime Boissonneault respond when a request falls on his desk? Well, it’s not every day that your quick actions are described as “speed of light” or “actually maybe a little faster (which means he could challenge Einstein’s theory of special relativity)”, writes Suzanne Talon, Calcul Québec’s interim Executive Director, one of four nominations for Dr. Boissonneault.

Then again, it’s not every day you have someone with a Ph.D. in quantum physics at the other end of your tech request. “Maxime’s training allows him to better understand the basic principles (physics, mathematics) associated with the research and provide understandable solutions that meet each user’s scientific needs,” writes Éric Trottier, a Laval Ph.D. student who needs advanced computing to analyze vast amounts of data from the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

For Eric Chamberland, whose numeric modelling and simulation research at Laval cuts across computer science, medicine, biology and engineering, Dr. Boissonneault came through when the team needed additional computing resources to validate their calculations.

“Maxime gave us the support we needed to continue our research … and test our new methodologies on large-scale problems,” Chamberland wrote.