The Ohio Supercomputer Center Gives Researchers a Processing Boost in the Fight Against COVID-19

How the Center is waiving costs and turbocharging pandemic research for a variety of disciplines

All across Ohio, companies are stepping up to fight COVID-19 with a wide range of innovations. And while entrepreneurs and innovators can be a great resource in a pandemic, sometimes they need a bit of assistance too. In this important moment in time, Ohio’s most powerful computing resource has come to the state’s aid. Since the early days of the pandemic, the Ohio Supercomputer Center has been at the forefront of research projects and COVID-19-related computing, helping assess what comes next and how to move forward. From antibody research to political science projections, progress is humming along at the OSC.

“Within the first day or two after we got the directive to stay at home, we pivoted from ‘We have to stay at home but it’s only going to be a week or two,’ to “Oh, this might be a lot longer than that and it’s really escalating,’” said Alan Chalker, Director of Strategic Programs. “We’re a resource for the public good, and the state and country are in crisis, so we immediately started having conversations with our peers and others asking how we can offer support. We quickly blasted out a message on every possible channel saying, ‘We are willing to provide extraordinary support to anything related to COVID-19.’”

Because the OSC already had all the tech in place to work from home, its resources didn’t need a lengthy transition period as they shifted to working from home. And on top of that preparation, Chalker said the Center’s leadership made an early decision to emphasize helping anyone who was using their resources for COVID-19, prioritizing the public good over finances and typical operations. The goal? Using the Center’s impressive tech to help solve the crisis.

“The first thing we did is specify that if you’re a researcher and you’re doing something that’s COVID-related and you need priority access or special software, we’re going to jump you to the front of the line and get you onto the system faster than ever,” said Chalker. “There’s also no charge associated with that and we’re absorbing all the costs. For all we know, a researcher here could be the one that’s going to find the magic cure, and we want to facilitate that.”

Now, the center is offering a variety of assistance, and is working at max capacity. In addition to working with researchers, the OSC is working with the commercial private industry, serving as a remote, virtual computer lab or for college students without computer access and helping facilitate connections and resources all across the state. With such a variety of offerings, the OSC has attracted a wide range of researchers and others.

“These faculty are really from all over the state and they vary greatly, which is really cool,” said Chalker. “We’ve got the OSU Department of Mathematics, Toledo Department of Chemistry, Case Western Medical School, University of Cincinnati Department of Physics, the OSU Department of Political Science, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Miami University Biomedical Engineering, the OSU Horticulture and Crop Sciences and many more. It’s pretty cool to think about. Of course it makes sense that chemistry people would be working on figuring out proteins that might be for antibodies, but then you have something like political scientists looking at information spread and how policy makers are making decisions as well.”

Chalker said the OSC’s help has been immediately evident. In one scenario, a researcher asked the Center for help on a Friday, was granted immediate access and developed a new version of a curve graph with additional scenarios for use in a Gov. Mike DeWine press conference the following Tuesday. That kind of quick progress isn’t an everyday occurrence for the OSC, and Chalker said it’s one of the most exciting parts of their help in the fight against COVID-19.

“I love that I get to dabble in so many cool different things at the center, but a lot of those things are somewhat abstract or long-term,” said Chalker. “This is a very unique situation for us where there’s a clear need that we can fill. There really isn’t any other entity in Ohio that can offer support the way that we can, so we’re seeing results on a very short turnaround. The scientists and researchers that are doing the work are the ones that are really doing the heavy lifting, but they’re able to do it that much faster with us, so it’s actually having an impact on the policymaking and decisions about COVID-19 and that’s just amazing. It’s unprecedented in my career, and it’s very exciting.”

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