Tony Skjellum continually reinforces SimCenter’s role in engaging students and supporting faculty

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Tony Skjellum describes the SimCenter at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) as a “collision space.” By that, he means that the nearly 20-year old Center is a catalyst for helping accelerate ideas, much like an incubator or co-working facility would do.

Even when COVID-19 hit, he says, “We didn’t skip a step.” That occurred in spite of the lack of many in-person classes and on-campus meetups and the challenges of creating collisions in virtual environments.

Throughout a recent interview to update this 2019 article, Skjellum repeatedly talked about the two important roles the SimCenter plays: engaging students and supporting faculty.

“We’re in the business of supporting early stage research that needs modelling and simulation support,” says the Director of the SimCenter. “We give them support, helping form teams, and those that gain traction go out on their own.”

Skjellum is part of a campus-wide initiative to grow the research activities at UTC, both in dollar volume and in interdisciplinary scope. In both regards, the SimCenter is the key linchpin that was visualized when it was launched in the early 2000s.

One of the newer initiatives is the Center for Understandable, Performant Exascale Communication Systems (CUP-ECS). Housed at the University of New Mexico, the program is part of the “Predictive Science Academic Alliance” funded by the Office of Advanced Simulation and Computing at the National Nuclear Security Administration. It draws on SimCenter strengths in high performance computing, modeling, and simulation, as well as computation fluid dynamics.

“It’s a very elite group,” Skjellum says, noting that UTC will be working with scientists at three Department of Energy national laboratories – Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia – and researchers at the University of New Mexico and University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It’s UTC’s first national research center.”

Project funding for the Center totals more than $4M, with UT’s total being about $1.3 million over five years, and seven undergraduate students and even more PhDs will be involved. “It is building a pipeline for student researchers . . . pulling-up academic opportunities,” he says.

Other research thrusts include:

  • A high-performance computing and cybersecurity project that also involves Boston University and North Carolina State University;
  • Work on applied research and policy development focused on critical infrastructure protection that draws from recent Tennessee experiences such as the Christmas Day bombing in Downtown Nashville, the coal ash spill in Roane County, and Chattanooga’s massive water main break and resulting issues in 2019;
  • Extreme systems research that includes what Skjellum calls “a powerful research program” in chip authenticity;
  • The Middle Tennessee Cyber Alignment Consortium that is funded by the National Science Foundation and includes UTC, Tennessee Tech University, and Middle Tennessee State University; and
  • One in health and biosystems which is likely to become the SimCenter’s next thrust area.

There are also ongoing more commercially focused activities such as the one with IMSA, a company using big data to address security for high-value maritime vessels. We described that work in this article in July 2019.

“The SimCenter is behind a lot of things that could go big one of these days,” Skjellum says.

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