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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 29, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 13
Grant from Moore Foundation Funds Data Analysis Research

Astronomer-led JHU team develops new approach to analyzing information

By Lisa de Nike

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has awarded a Johns Hopkins University faculty member a $1.2 million grant to devise a new method for analyzing information created in data-intensive fields such as astronomy and genetics. The grant matches an earlier W.M. Keck Foundation grant of the same amount and will fund three postdoctoral fellows in advanced scientific data analysis.

Under the terms of the five-year grant, Alexander Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor in the Henry J. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Krieger School and a professor of computer science in the Whiting School, will use a new approach to analyzing very large data sets to solve what he calls "problems on the frontiers of science."

"The massive amounts of data emerging from our newest instruments — telescopes, particle detectors, gene sequencers — demand a novel method of analysis that coalesces the skills of astronomers, biologists and others with those of the computer scientist, the computational scientist and the statistician," Szalay said. "Most scientific data collected today will never be directly examined as 'raw data' by scientists; instead, it will be put online into 'smart databases' where it will be analyzed and summarized by computer programs before scientists even see or use it."

William R. Brody, president of the university, said, "This project has the potential to transform not just one or two fields but the way we approach a broad array of problems across many disciplines. My thanks go to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for recognizing the possibilities and making a very special investment in the future of science."

Szalay has spent the past decade creating the various components necessary for the development of a multidisciplinary approach to data analysis that can scale beyond terabytes — a measurement equal to 1 trillion bytes — as part of the creation of the science archive for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. As a result of that work, the critical foundation for a scalable approach now exists, he said.

Much of this work was done in collaboration with Jim Gray of Microsoft Research and a team of astronomers and computer scientists at Johns Hopkins. This development also led to the National Virtual Observatory, a National Science Foundation-funded five-year project that brought together collaborators from all over the country to create the World-Wide Telescope, which put the world's astronomy data into an easy-to-use system.

"In some fields, data from many different archives, located at different places throughout the world, have to be cross-correlated to produce new insights," Szalay said. "In other fields, the sheer amount of data is so overwhelming that we need databases capable of manipulating it in ways that will allow us to extract science. This requires new skills from 21st-century scientists. Our group at Johns Hopkins is using this approach to data analysis over a wide range of problems from astronomy to turbulence to wireless sensor networks collecting data from the environment."

In addition to several postdoctoral fellows, the Johns Hopkins team includes faculty members Ethan Vishniac and Rosemary Wyse of Physics and Astronomy, Charles Mene-veau of Mechanical Engineering and Katalin Szlavecz of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

This is the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation's first grant to the university.

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore and his wife, Betty, established their philanthropic organization in September 2000 to fund outcome-based projects aimed at measurably improving the quality of life for future generations. Its focus is on grant-making initiatives that support environmental conservation, science, higher education and the San Francisco Bay Area.

The grant is part of The Johns Hopkins: Knowledge for the World campaign. Commitments to the campaign have reached $1.558 billion, more than three-quarters of the $2 billion goal. Priorities of the campaign, which benefits both The Johns Hopkins University and The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, include strengthening endowment for student aid and faculty support; advancing research, academic and clinical initiatives; and building and upgrading facilities on all campuses. The campaign began in July 2000 and is scheduled to end in 2007.


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