Discovery Lab to close for climate change research

Bob Huebert, manager of the Discovery Lab, scrolls through Google Earth in the Discovery Lab. Photo by Sarah Richards/Sun Star

By Sara Richards
Sun Star Reporter

Discovery Lab, a popular virtual-reality laboratory run by the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center (ARSC) for more than half a decade will close this year to free up resources for a new supercomputer to monitor climate change.

The Discovery Lab is a three-dimensional, virtual reality environment created to aid and facilitate scientific discovery. Over the years, its use has expanded beyond research, becoming a place to study art and music as well. The lab has become a popular educational tool for youth and its guided tours have become a valuable outreach to the general public.

The tours are one hour long demonstrations, and the most popular applications have included Alaska Panoramas, Historical Fairbanks, Virtual Mars, and Mt. Redoubt.”They let you see things you otherwise couldn’t,” said Bob Huebert, a systems analyst and manager of the lab. “It’s been wonderful PR for the university.”

Huebert is disappointed to see the lab close. “It’s a dirty shame,” he said. “But it all boils down to having money to support the Lab.”

The first application to be used for tours was a project by Miho Aoki, a joint faculty professor with the art department and ARSC who has spent a considerable amount of time working in the Discovery Lab. “It’s sad that the lab is closing,” she said in an email from Japan, where she is currently on sabbatical.”The lab brought people from many fields and disciplines together.”

Along with former University Provost Paul Reichardt, ARSC Director Frank Williams began working toward getting the Discovery Lab set up “at the turn of the century,” he laughed. It took two years to find the appropriate space on campus, and cost $1.2 million to build. The lab opened in 2003.

Williams made the decision to close the lab late last year when Alaska and Hawaii were awarded a National Science Foundation grant of $6 million for a new supercomputer to go toward freshwater climate research. As director, Williams said that he regularly re-evaluates the Center’s priorities, keeping a close eye on finances, and considering options to improve the program. “This was really a personal decision [to close the lab],” Williams said. “It’s hard. I worked hard and invested a lot into it.”

The grant will fund The Pacific Area Climate Monitoring and Analysis Network (PACMAN). The project represents a new partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Hawaii. As a result, ARSC will receive a 2.5-petabyte data storage facility and high performance computing resources, according to Williams. The director concluded that the $250,000 a year that the Discovery Lab costs to run was no longer feasible when that money could be put toward the new supercomputer.

“I had two choices,” he said. “Continue to fund the Discovery Lab, or use that money to help fund an academic supercomputer system for climate research. My call was to fund the computer and storage system of PACMAN.”

“We need staff to help run the code. It’s not like it’s a Dell and we can just flip on a switch,” said Debra Damron, ARSC’s communications director. She added that the shift in priorities also gets the center focused back on research. Damron said that, over the years, the scientific research aspect of the Discovery Lab had been neglected. “I think it’s important to point out that Frank’s original vision when he first got the grant for the Discovery Lab was that it would be for scientific discovery, but it became more of a showcase item,” she said. Williams agreed.

“The art and music programs have built performances and sophisticated them in the Discovery Lab. Vision is important, but we can’t sustain that,” he said. “We need to get back on track.”

Efforts to find another sponsor for the popular lab have been unsuccessful. UAF Executive Officer Bob Shefchik said that when Williams brought the situation to the Chancellor’s Cabinet, he inquired whether another department could take over the responsibility of funding the Lab. “It costs a lot of money to run, and no one had it,” he said.

Shefchik felt that few departments could handle the Discovery Lab even if they had the money. “This is really high-end stuff… you need to know what you’re doing. You can’t just read an instruction manual and know how everything works,” he said.

The executive officer noted that this wasn’t the ideal situation for anyone, including the administration. “The chancellor is disappointed that ARSC can’t continue to fund the Lab,” he said, “but sometimes you have to make hard decisions. Some things end up being reduced or cut, and this is unfortunately one of them.”

Frank Williams added that the Discovery Lab is not going to close abruptly. Scott Deal, a former professor of music at UAF, is scheduled to use the lab for a program in late April, and the director said “we couldn’t just pull the rug out.” After that, only tours and performances that have been scheduled in advance will use the Discovery Lab.

“It’s like a chapter in a book,” Williams said. “It’s been a good story. No regrets… people prospered, but now we’re going to write a new chapter.”

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