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Gateways 2018 Student Blog: Travel Award Recipient Jared McLean

Each year, SGCI offers travel support for the annual Gateways Conference series. We are pleased to be able to offer an opportunity for young professionals, students, and future science gateway developers to attend. This year, we offered travel support to 9 students, 3 educators from Minority-Serving Institutions, and an additional 7 attendees. One of the students we funded was Jared McLean, a student at the University of Hawaii. We asked him to share with us his experience of traveling to Austin to attend Gateways 2018. 

Want to know more about Gateways 2018? Read all about it in this blog post

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am currently a master’s student in computer science at the University of Hawaii in my second year. While I am a student at the Manoa campus of the University, on the island of Oahu, I live on the island of Hawaii and have been attending classes remotely from the Hilo campus. I have been working for the Hawaiʻi EPSCoR ʻIke Wai project, a project aimed towards developing tools and resources for improving Hawaii’s water sustainability through better accessibility of hydrological knowledge. After graduating from the master’s program, I am hoping to find work in application development, likely related to data visualization.

What experience did you have with science gateways prior to attending the Gateways 2018 conference?

As part of Ike Wai’s efforts to increase knowledge accessibility, one of the core features developed by the project has been their gateway, which provides a centralized repository of the research and tools developed. The decision support tool I am currently developing is also integrated with this gateway, with the data utilized hosted through it.

What did you learn at Gateways 2018? Did you have any favorite presentations, tutorials, or sessions?

An important part of a web-based tool, such as the one I am currently working on, is the concept of search engine optimization. One of the tutorials I attended discussed some of the principles for designing a web application optimized for search engines. Some examples being that the h1 tag should only be used exactly once in a webpage, that key terms should be written in varying manners if possible, and, with the importance of quality backlinks for improving search engine results, ensuring that the desired application keywords are prominent enough that linking sources also use these terms. This tutorial also discussed some of the psychological aspects for design, ensuring that users get the information they are looking for with limited frustration, and how to design elements that draw the users attention so they are easier to identify.

Another tutorial went over some of the basic technical details for creating virtual supercomputing clusters that could be used for performing high performance tasks using resources provided by an HPC company. While the tutorial specifically discussed the process on the Jetstream environment, many of the basic concepts likely apply to other similar environments.

Two of the presentations I attended also particularly stood out. One of these was on a web application called Social Media Macroscope, which provided a simple web interface for performing data analytics on social media data. Since traversing the APIs required to perform these analytics can sometimes be tricky for those without a solid technical background, tools like this one really increase the ease with which researchers from any discipline can perform the necessary analytics. A course I recently took on social computing and analytics went over the process of performing analytics on social media data. I could see where tool assistance from a gateway such as this would be very effective for streamlining many of these processes, particularly with this class having been cross-disciplinary.

The other presentation, one of the keynote speeches, went over techniques developed by the presenters for massively improving the efficiency of post-processing on videos. The presented technique uses a what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) approach for applying modifications in real-time so a producer can see the outcome of a modification without the need of reprocessing the entire thing at every iteration, which is extremely costly on time and other resources. The application produced was also built on top of a platform, providing a simple and streamlined interface for performing the actions needed. The presenters discussed how the production of a useful interface requires considering the tools that the target audience are used to and applying similar design principles to your application. This helps with user experience by ensuring some degree of intuitiveness for the target user base. The main concept of this that really stuck with me was the idea that good interface design is really a reduction of potential features, such that the remaining subset of features provides the required functionality in as simple a way as possible. This was exemplified by the fact that any set of functions that can be performed computationally can be produced from scratch using a low-level programming language, but with extreme difficulty. A user interface is really just the reimplementation of some subset of these features in a streamlined fashion.

Did you present at Gateways 2018?

I presented a poster at Gateways 2018 on the work I have done on the decision support tool for Ike Wai. This tool allows users to simulate modifications to the land cover for the island of Oahu and view the potential impacts on groundwater recharge rates. Providing a simple interface for visualizing developmental impacts should allow land developers and policymakers to make better-informed decisions based on the potential impacts of a proposed development.

The presented poster was well received by the attendants of the poster presentation, and I received some useful feedback on potential extensions of the project. While the conservation of freshwater resources is particularly important in an island environment, and there are plans to extend the application to the other islands in Hawaii, some attendants also pointed out how this application could be useful elsewhere, particularly in regions with poor water sustainability or that have limited natural recharge rates – due to limited rainfall, for example. This could be used not only to prevent further damage by poor decisions but also to help in restoration efforts. It was also pointed out that, while the current groundwater recharge model does not take into account the cascading effects of surrounding land covers, if an efficient model could be produced for representing these effects on-the-fly, the simulation could be further improved.

Did you make valuable connections while at the Gateways 2018 conference?

A colleague who develops and facilitates much of the Ike Wai gateway, Sean Cleveland, was also in attendance at the conference. While we have had contact over the course of my work on the decision support tool, we primarily work in different states, and this was the first opportunity we have had to talk extensively. The ability to go over some of the details of his work and the background processes of the project that I don’t often interact with helped to give me a better understanding of the some of the interconnections with the data components of the application.

I was also provided a mentor, Mark Miller, with whom I was able to discuss my current work and information that could be applied to developing a future career with. Speaking with professionals in the gateways community was also very useful for learning about potentially useful technologies. Being an interdisciplinary conference, hearing about perspectives on development patterns and design principles from professionals in a variety of fields provided good insight into techniques which could be applied to my work for improving user experience.

How has the travel support that SGCI provided impacted your progress toward your academic and career goals?

The ability to attend this conference provided me with a lot of information I will be able to apply to my current and future work. Specifically, much of the design principles for improving user experience that were discussed will certainly prove to be a boon to producing polished applications and a marketable skill set. The support provided by the Science Gateways Community Institute gave me the ability to attend this conference.

Are there ways in which you hope to engage with the Science Gateways Community Institute in the future?

If possible, I would like to attend this conference again in the future in order to keep up to date with the current technologies and the evolving knowledge base related to this community.

Any other thoughts or additions? 

I would like to thank Dr. Linda Hayden and the rest of the organizing committee for their kindness and for bringing me to the conference. Everyone at the conference was very kind, and I learned a lot of useful information. This proved to be an invaluable experience overall.