Research on Big Data and Visualization Receives Major Funding

UC Riverside has received a $4.5 million NASA grant to train underrepresented minority students to work in STEM fields with extremely large data sets

“Big Data” refers to a technology phenomenon that has arisen since the mid-1980s. As computers have improved, growing storage and processing capacities have provided new and powerful ways to gain insight into the world by sifting through the infinite quantities of data available.Photo credit: DARPA.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The University of California, Riverside has received nearly $4.5 million from NASA to develop research, education, training and collaborative opportunities in big data and visualization.  Big data refers to very large data sets.  One challenge such large data sets pose is that the relationships and connections among the pieces of information can be difficult to tease out in a way that can be easily visualized.

The five-year research project, called “Fellowships and Internships in Extremely Large Data Sets” (FIELDS), will train underrepresented minority students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to address a critical shortfall in the workforce essential for future NASA missions.  Bahram Mobasher, a professor of physics and astronomy, is the grant’s principal investigator.

FIELDS will involve the following partner institutions besides UC Riverside: NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the California State University system and the state’s two-year community colleges.

“This is excellent news for students who will receive 80 percent of all the funding,” said Michael Pazzani, the vice chancellor for research and economic development at UCR. “We anticipate the collaboration with JPL will lead to additional joint research projects between UCR faculty and JPL science staff, enormously benefiting both education and research.”

Students participating in the research project will be underrepresented minorities at all educational levels, with undergraduate students being selected from physical, biological, computer science and engineering disciplines at UCR and partner institutions – all Hispanic-serving institutions like UCR – nationwide.

Big data and its manipulation, visualization, modeling, and role in discovery have become increasingly relevant for NASA and all of science and engineering.  NASA, in particular, has planetary probes and orbiting sensors that gather abundant data.  From its nearly 100 active missions, NASA gathers approximately 2 gigabytes of data – equivalent to approximately 9,000 books of 200 pages each – per minute.  This already high data volume NASA receives is soon expected to increase by a factor of 1,000, greatly increasing the challenge to store, manipulate and visualize these data.

Photo shows Bahram Mobasher.

Bahram Mobasher is a professor of physics and astronomy at UC Riverside. Photo credit: UCR Strategic Communications.

“This anticipated data flux presents both technical challenges and workforce needs,” Mobasher said.   “FIELDS research will engage students at all levels to address problems in big data and develop new approaches to visualize and analyze these data so that meaningful science can be extracted.”

JPL will be the primary NASA center for FIELDS.  The project will include undergraduate training and research, a new master’s course on big data and visualization (students will attend lectures at UCR and do research at JPL), as well as doctoral and postdoctoral research.  UCR faculty, led by Mobasher, and JPL staff will supervise all the training and research activities.

“We are very excited about the opportunities to work with FIELDS students on cutting-edge research on some of the most exciting problems in science – including the study of the mysterious dark energy in the universe and the search for planets which may harbor life,” said Jason Rhodes, JPL principal scientist.

Each undergraduate intern will spend 10 weeks at JPL during summer for two years and receive a stipend of $2,000 each year.  During the rest of the academic year, the undergraduates will continue research under a UCR faculty and receive $3,000 per year.  Each graduate student will be supported for two years by a stipend of about $70,000, closely working with UCR faculty and JPL staff.

“A major goal of the project is advancement by students to research universities, gaining research experience, acquiring advanced STEM degrees, and taking up careers in STEM, including NASA employment,” Mobasher explained.  “We expect that collaborative research by JPL and UCR scientists and their students will generate preliminary results for further grant proposals to outside agencies.”

FIELDS will also contribute to high school STEM teacher training at UCR to encourage greater interest in STEM from high school students.

“Scientific visualization combined with discoveries on and beyond Earth has shown its power to generate interest and even awe at all levels of education,” Mobasher said. “The inclusion of learners at all levels – graduate students, undergraduates and high school teachers – allows FIELDS to engage a spectrum of students with the JPL legacy of human wonder and discovery, whether just over the next rise on Mars or deep in interplanetary space.”

Mobasher noted that FIELDS’s emphasis on digital information and extremely large data sets will prepare for an anticipated workforce need in all branches of natural sciences and mathematics. The capacity to manage, manipulate and visualize massive data will prepare graduate students for a number of research and career options, he said.

“Indeed, our planned master’s program emerged from the need in industry as well as academia for individuals trained in big data techniques,” he added.

A FIELDS workshop will take place each fall at either JPL or UCR and gather all participating undergraduate and graduate students and their mentors.

UCR faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the Department of Statistics, the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering will participate in the program.

NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) selected 10 minority-serving universities for cooperative agreement awards valued at almost $47 million. Award recipients were selected from 76 proposals after a rigorous peer review by education and technical experts.

Awards were made through the 2014 Education Opportunities in NASA Science, Technology, Engineering and Math NASA research announcement for the establishment of MUREP Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) centers. MIRO awards promote STEM literacy and enhance and sustain the capability of institutions to perform NASA-related research and education.

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Additional Contacts

Bahram Mobasher
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