New Russian University's Loss Is U.S. Supercomputing Center's Gain

After a cup of coffee at a new Russian science university, Edward Seidel is coming back to the United States to reconnect with an old flame.

Last week Seidel, 55, was named director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Trained as an astrophysicist, Seidel came to NCSA as a postdoc under then-Director Larry Smarr. The job launched a 20-year career in high-performance computing that eventually took Seidel to the National Science Foundation (NSF), where he led the Office of Cyberinfrastructure before becoming head of NSF’s directorate for mathematics and physical sciences.

Seidel’s return to his roots marks an end to a brief overseas sojourn. Last fall, Seidel became senior vice president of research and innovation at the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech), a new private university outside Moscow. Seidel’s main job has been to advance plans to create 15 centers of excellence involving collaborations between Skoltech and prominent universities around the world. Ten such centers have already been identified, he says, but that’s just the beginning. “There will be a tremendous amount of work required” to find directors, hire faculty members, and nail down the operating agreements for each center, he says.

Despite relishing the challenge of a startup, Seidel says that he was lured back to the United States by the chance to return to a field to which he has devoted so much of his professional career. “The goal is to move scientific computing into the era of big data while preserving the essence of supercomputing,” he says. “The challenge at NCSA is a better fit for my skills.”

NCSA’s current director, Thom Dunning, announced his decision to step down 3 days before Seidel took the Skoltech job, and Seidel says that he “waited until the last day” to apply for the job. Then he spent 3 months mulling NCSA’s offer before deciding last week to say yes. “Skoltech is going to do just fine,” he says, “and NCSA represents one more shot at a leadership position in U.S. science.”

Seidel starts his new post on 15 January, although he plans to remain a consultant to Skoltech. His wife, physicist-turned-computer scientist Gabrielle Allen, will be making a similar transition. She’ll be leaving her job as a professor at Skoltech, where she is acting CIO, to join the faculty at the University of Illinois.

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