How ASU Is Spearheading Innovation in the Changing World of Research Technology
Today, everywhere you look technology is disrupting something. Taxis, hotels, music — these are just a few examples of industries that have been rendered unrecognizable by digital innovation.
But technology isn’t just disrupting consumer markets. In higher ed institutions and research facilities today, technology is transforming the way information is shared and analyzed across the globe. According to a recent article published in Wired, “technology has become the new backbone in the classroom and the lab.”
So, how are researchers using the latest technologies available today? In this EdTech Times podcast series, Preparing Your Organization for the Next Generation Research Enterprise, we’ll speak with those working at the intersection of research and technology about the ways that enterprise software and big data are overhauling the labs of yesterday, to make way for more efficient processes.
In our first episode, we’ll see how ASU is preparing their research department for the future.
Preparing Your Organization for the Next Generation Research Enterprise Episode 1: How Arizona State University Is Spearheading Innovation in the Changing World of Research Technology
With the growing presence of new technologies to support research, institutions must balance the need to innovate and scale with the need to adhere to government regulations. Yet according to Sean Dudley, executive director of research technology at Arizona State University, institutions need to be willing “to not just run from risk.”
“You know, if you see the red flag you need to consider the likelihood of that outcome. You want to be all the way mindful of and honoring federal regulations. But I think too often institutions err on the side of risk aversion, and they miss a major opportunity,” says Sean.
Sean notes that because of ASU’s willingness to chase these opportunities, the institution has been able to bring their academic, administrative, and research technologies to the next level.
“I think it has to do with the institution having a strong vision, but then a lot of leadership that are operations-minded and willing to translate that vision into near-term goals. So, you know, if you aim for the stars, we don’t want to settle for hitting the sky,” says Sean.
While ASU may still be reaching for the stars, Sean says they have at least reached the moon—a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is just one of the tools the institution is using to gather “enormous amounts of data.” But sometimes the technological innovations are a little closer to home, and a little less glamorous.
So how else is ASU taking a few chances in the name of innovation? Listen in to our interview with Sean Dudley to learn more about the most innovative research being done at ASU, and how new technologies are supporting it.
Hannah Nyren: This is Hannah Nyren with EdTech Times, and today we are speaking with Sean Dudley, executive director of research technology at Arizona State University. Hi Sean. How’s it going?
Sean Dudley: It’s going great. Glad to be here.
Hannah Nyren: So, Sean, in a couple of sentences, can you give me a snapshot of who you are and what you do?
Sean Dudley: Sure. I’m not who I thought I would become. If I think back to early college, like many of us, I was nowhere near the path I wound up on. I was going to pursue an English degree and become a teacher, and then fell in love with biology and philosophy, that charted me toward research, and I ended up working 13 years ago at an evolutionary functional genomic center at Arizona State University. From there, a few years after, I moved into research administration to support broadening of technological advancement and use within research administration and sponsored projects.
Hannah Nyren: Oh, that’s awesome. So, we’re here today at an event. Can you tell me a little bit about what you spoke about on your panel?
Sean Dudley: Sure. It was a fun exploration. It’s our first time doing kind of a forward thinking or forward-oriented type of discussion. So we discussed, what are the different things that might change research in the future — in terms of not just technology. This had even more so to do with research administration and where institutions might need to call upon themselves through collaboration to invent and succeed going forward.
Hannah Nyren: So, for a research organization, how does technology fit into the bigger picture like the strategic plan, the path for the future, on an institutional level?
Sean Dudley: In a traditional sense, you know, it’s systems, its automation, it’s the elimination of paper process. It’s advancing from basic integration of data to integration of process. Really just supporting progression. But what’s changing is security frameworks coming into the mix and a call for technology to become really an essential control and really become a compliance topic in a sense. Much more so than it has been in the past. For example, when I look into some of our more secure areas even, you know, even the physical controls are technology driven. So, considering that, and the fact that most universities can’t afford to staff today’s information security specialists, this is a topic we should — we should all be interested in.
Hannah Nyren: So how can institutions use technology to progress the research mission to a more scalable future?
Sean Dudley: I think a key there is paying attention to the whole data discussion. There are many elements to it. There’s infrastructure, there’s a cultural—a huge cultural component—which is not a solved aspect when it comes to how do you get faculty to first offer up their data sets? How do you get those datasets then adequately described? And then, how do you get others to leverage those? I think the others to leverage can come into the picture, where you’ve got folks without access to the means of creating data sets and they can act on those. And we’ll see, I think, potentially a boom of discovery is when more and more data sets become available. It’s also a great way to substantiate your partnerships. And I think that’s more of a necessary survival move these days. How are you partnered with these other institutions that you share names with in the headlines? And is that something where your faculty are materially operating together, jointly discovering, and how is your institution prepared to support that if you aren’t doing so already?
Hannah Nyren: So, what are a few of the best practices for implementing these technologies?
Sean Dudley: Well, interestingly, I think there’s a bit of a convergence here, where you want to be innovative, you want to be progressive, you don’t want to be careless. So, how do you continue to change while managing and ensuring continuity? Technology can really disrupt in the wrong way, if we’re not careful in that regard. So research at ASU involves our operations organization, which I’m a part of. We’re the only ISO 9001 compliant research administration office in the United States. So it needs to be a commitment to quality to that extent I suggest. I can tell you that since I went through the process and now understand what it can do for the organization from this perspective of how to implement carefully, aggressively, and selectively. I recently, on the heels of that, decided to pursue and just completed a six sigma black belt certification. Because I think there’s more to be done yet than just the ISO 9001.
Hannah Nyren: So, in higher education, ASU has developed a reputation as very innovative, technologically advanced. I know you all incorporate very bizarre uses of technology in classrooms and dorms and all sorts of things like that. So, why is ASU so much more willing to take risks than other organizations?
Sean Dudley: It’s one of my favorite questions. Because I think we have a sense of why. I think it has to do with the institution having a strong vision, but then a lot of leadership that are operations-minded and willing to translate that vision into near-term goals. So, you know, if you aim for the stars, we don’t want to settle for hitting the sky. Because if you set a plan, a strategic plan—and this is why we do five-year planning with quarterly check in on tactics. But if you set that plan, and you start to have success against it, even though it means you’re going to hit the stars, you start to believe you can hit the stars. So, that’s certainly something I’ve noticed at ASU.
Sean Dudley: The other piece is a willingness to not just run from risk. You know, if you see the red flag, you need to consider the likelihood of that outcome. In the national context, you know, consider where if that were to become an issue, when that issue first arises. And is it at your institution? You want to be all the way, you know, mindful of and honoring federal regulations. But I think too often institutions err on the side of risk aversion and they miss a major opportunity.
Hannah Nyren: Right. Yeah. Well, there are a lot of risks to be afraid of, and compliance is a huge part of research.
Sean Dudley: We have permission to be in the headlines, sort of either way.
Hannah Nyren: Great. So along with being technologically advanced in a lot of different ways, ASU is also at the center of big data and finding new uses for that data. So, how is that impacting your planning?
Sean Dudley: It’s preoccupying, really. It leaves us at the drawing board. We do not have an answer. I don’t know that there is one yet. I think it’s really an aggregate of different components. For me, this has led back to something that I’m still exploring—which is often what we’re seeing in this space are sponsored projects that yield a software outcome that’s supposed to sort of help solve this problem. And software doesn’t solve problems, we know that, but it’s a nice, easy to measure sort of outcome of a sponsored project activity. So, I understand why that’s an inclination. But if we think about what has to occur, we’re really talking about a changing culture. And culture change will stem from lots of incentives. And I think we need to be mindful of a healthy balance there in favor of our cultural participants. And then data citation, I think, is another piece that needs to take hold where that’s another, seen as another, valid sort of prestige item in terms of how many times have your data sets been cited. And that’s conceptually something we had the opportunity to discuss with the NSF and they support it.
Hannah Nyren: And in what ways have you used the data so far? In what ways is that big data being put to good use?
Sean Dudley: Well, I think we have situations, kind of the classic situations, these are our standard customers when it comes to research computing. You’re going to have your folks in physics. We have a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter circling the moon and producing enormous amounts of data. We have a conceptually new piece of equipment called the XFEL (X-Ray Free Electron Laser), which is, you know, basically smashing particles not at the scale of miles but at the scale of the basement of one of our new buildings. So, and that’s one of the most phenomenal things I’ve seen happen at our institution in terms of the development of that or the emergence of that system. And not long after it wowed the world, they were talking about how they’re—they’re fairly sure they can reduce it to the size of a desktop. The waiting period for using large colliders is multiple years. So, how are you supposed to advance the research when it takes multiple years to even get access to the equipment?
Sean Dudley: I mentioned that piece of machinery because the XFEL generates just a staggering amount of information. And called for a partnership with a progressive technology provider that happened to be seeking a use case for some some new storage solution that they had, which could satisfy the XFEL’s need for bandwidth. All that does is sort of grab a hold of what’s outputted. And then we’re still working out how to effectively get that out for analysis and returned. But that’s—as a single case you can see as this becomes more and more common or novel, hardware is generated that has almost invariably enormous amount of data outcome. How does the institution set itself up to scale effectively, efficiently using, you know, where does cloud come into play? You never want to limit or prevent any kind of research outcome. So, there’s the risk of that. You know, if this information can’t be effectively harnessed and analyzed.
Hannah Nyren: I was not expecting you to start with space. So that’s really cool. There is definitely a broad use of the data that you’re gathering. So, I know you’ve probably been dying to talk about this, but now we’re going to talk about the cloud. How does the cloud impact your strategy?
Sean Dudley: Well, it’s a term that has fallen into ambiguity like Web 2.0 and other things. It does have meaning in that it’s typically where, as far as our—I think our customers are concerned, we’ve got a vendor involved that’s taking care of managing a solution for us. I think folks should be moving in that direction. I think failure to go to the cloud is often a failure to properly evaluate total cost of ownership. So, if we’re just looking at a hardware cost and not considering systems administration and other things, I think we quickly fall short of understanding why what looks like a big sticker price on the cloud option actually is not. We’ve gone entirely that direction with our Enterprise Research administration, and I have no inclination to go back.
Sean Dudley: On the other hand, with research computing, we have mostly on premise. We made a recent 3 million dollar investment in a new cluster. And what we need to do from a cloud perspective there is make sure, again, that we’re not limiting or preventing outcomes. So, we would say we need what’s called a burst to cloud capability there, and that’s just if the environment is fully utilized and another job comes in to get processed, we should be able to scale up into the cloud. It’s not an inexpensive thing to do, but it does allow further research to continue.
Hannah Nyren: Is the security of the data an important factor in this decision?
Sean Dudley: Most cloud providers are fairly solid in this regard now. Really though, there are other factors to consider. You really want to be careful about saying, you know, there’s a total solution here. And that’s where we need to be wary of the vendors coming forward saying “I have your cloud need figured out. I’ve got the solution for you.” Because of those security aspects, you can get yourself in very deep trouble very quickly. Because we’re talking about infrastructure. We’re not talking people in process. And that’s a huge part of security.
Sean Dudley: So, that’s where we need to be, you know, staffing to attend to this interest and educating effectively. Because, too often it’s incredibly confusing. I don’t want the faculty to have to concern themselves with anything other than “Hey, you have this type of project. There’s a new folder on your computer.” It’s got to be that easy, because it also has to be the most attractive available option from an institutional perspective. You know, it’s got to be actually competitive with the types of solutions they’re otherwise attractive to. Otherwise they will use those. And in a practical sense, I think we’re being somewhat dishonest with ourselves if we think that our solution is the one that they’re going to use because they’re supposed to. I think convenience can trump supposed to.
Hannah Nyren: So, you discussed in the panel how ASU is responding to a shortage of people going into research by trying to find new researchers within their own student body. So, can you tell me a little bit about how all this started and what results have come about since then?
Sean Dudley: Sure. We built a system we call Research Academy, after realizing there is a lack of, kind of, not just structured training and I’m wary of that term because there’s so much training and research and there’s a- there’s a stigma to that. But it’s instructional content that helps them understand, you know, as an initiate in the research world, how do I how to write a proposal? ‘What does an effective proposal look like?’ is honestly sometimes all they needed. And I think about it, and I think in many cases, I know institutionally we hadn’t always even provided that. So it’s a real stab in the dark. Well if there’s one way to make it easier to kind of activate into this space. And then once they’ve sort of secured really anything in terms of an initial sponsored project, we need to consider them capable of advancing and to differentiate here where they gain more of a portfolio. I think this is a space, you know, initiate and differentiate, where institutions should be mindful of what what programs and networks are available take some time to think about what can we leverage nationally that has, you know, maybe a smaller dollar amount.
Sean Dudley: But, you know, let’s not forget the multiplier here. You know, if you’ve got an opportunity to fairly consistently win a $25,000 undergraduate award. And, you know, in the case of ASU, where you’ve got the largest student body in the United States, we should be absolutely aggressively pursuing those opportunities, because of just the sheer volume we might be able to win with a strong engineering program. So, I mentioned the engineering program because the one that came to mind was centered around these- these kind of—it’s really workforce development where students get paid to learn how to do things like machine learning. So, these programs exist. I think it’s a matter of making sure that- that you’re advertising them, not just within that college.
Sean Dudley: So and then beyond that elevating your faculty and this is where I think we can address some of the common struggles of highly successful faculty when it comes to the people aspect of their new career. So, were they prepared to manage people? Are they prepared to create that next, you know, high achieving researcher out of an ambitious and interested faculty or emerging faculty member?
Hannah Nyren: That’s really interesting. So, how many students are in this group and what have they done so far?
Sean Dudley: Well, we don’t limit access to the academy. As you approached the product, it takes a look at where you’re at in your research career. So, you have some, you know, authority over the content that you consume. But there are things that the organization already knows about you that we should leverage for the sake of drawing someone into instructional content. So, we’re very used to that. You know, we’re very used to the Amazon suggested books experience. We want that kind of intelligence in a system, and that intelligence was developed to drive sales. And that’s a conversion and so is the learning process.
Sean Dudley: So everyone at ASU from our perspective in terms of all students, should understand what a research career entails so that concept is available to them. It’s not that they all need to become faculty. In fact, I don’t think that’s a reasonable goal. But I think a degree of research involvement is actually workforce development. It’s critical workforce development, when you look forward into the future. Because we need folks with these nuanced and complex skill sets like machine learning and, you know, creating our next information security experts things like that.
Hannah Nyren: And you actually were telling me earlier about a group of students who built a drone and you were saying it’s one of the best drones you’ve ever seen. So what started that project?
Sean Dudley: They did. We should never underestimate the power of young minds. And really, the time commitment and energy that they’re capable of putting into something. And I’m excited to see, I won’t name the program because it’s a bit secretive right now, but it represents some of our best and brightest. And they’ve been granted some autonomy which means, you know, they get to decide which projects they pursue and they are allowed to come up with their own and there really are no limits. And I’ve noticed that when they encounter an obstacle, what’s fascinating to me, is it’s several times been the case where it’s something that I would have been just like, “Well, that’s it. We can’t.” You know, they bumped into FAA regulations. And while most of us would have said “Ah, can’t change the world.” No. They created an entire social media movement to change the way the FAA was regulating that air space. It’s that kind of stuff that I just don’t see other populations doing, or willing to do, in the way that these kids can.
Hannah Nyren: That’s really interesting. And it seems like you all are doing a lot of really cool innovative things. There are a lot of little things that you’re doing that I wouldn’t expect to be going on in higher ed, or in research even. But it’s been really great to speak with you. And I learned a lot.
Sean Dudley: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
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