RENCI’s Secret Sauce

By: Tom Griffen 

The smell of griddle oil starts as a hint, then becomes more noticeable as the elevator climbs to floor five. Doors slide open and there’s no mistaking it—someone’s cooking pancakes. For a moment I think about my childhood. Sunday mornings around the kitchen table, dad with a spatula in-hand, a giant Tupperware bowl brimmed with batter, a mountain of flap jacks under a hand towel.

Disoriented, I walk down an unmarked hall and am promptly greeted by a man who correctly identifies me as an outsider. He then leads me to a reception area where employees are filling plates with breakfast foods.

The room, at first glance, seems lined with artwork. But a closer look reveals detailed charts and posters graphically representing massive amounts of intricate data. One, for example, was commissioned by Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, to study wind patterns in Manhattan. Colorful data delivered in a way that makes it aesthetically pleasing.

This was my first impression of RENCI—the Renaissance Computing Institute—a UNC research institute founded in 2004 as a multi-disciplinary R&D center,  specializing in cyberinfrastructure. Today they collaborate with Duke University and NC State to bridge the data gap between scientific disciplines.

David Knowles, RENCI’s Director of Economic Development, summed it up for me: “RENCI uses information technology, high-performance computing, and data management systems to put complex research into discernible formats.”

RENCI’s evolved with the times. In the early days it was typical for researchers to focus independently on a singular, investigative plan, usually in the confines of their own labs. These days however, it’s not uncommon to have a physicist, mathematician, and statistician from multiple campus facilities on the same research team.

During their first decade, RENCI’s projects dealt mostly with life science and environmental science. They created storm search models, disaster potential scenarios, and flood projections. Their robust computational infrastructure resulted in comprehensive (and comprehensible) visual data fit for any audience.

Recently, an emerging field has rapidly become the main focus—data science. From the analysis of customer demographics, profit margins, relevant markets, and inventory management, data science does everything possible to understand quantitative possibilities. Since the ability to collect, stream, and generate data outpaces the ability to derive its meaning, data science does what it can to keep up. It takes a special kind of intellect and personality to navigate its intricacies.

“We look for the Swiss Army Knife. The unicorn,” says Knowles. “Rare people who work well at the intersection of domain sciences and cyber infrastructure. This is the secret sauce.”

“Our employees have high skills, high education, and technical knowledge,” he says. “They are in-demand and have plenty of opportunities elsewhere, but they stay here.”

 Knowles believes the draw of RENCI’s culture stems from their being at the forefront of a challenging field. Employees get to do things nobody’s done before.

 RENCI is well-positioned to occupy the leading role in data science. And their timing couldn’t be better—the hype surrounding data science makes funding dollars readily available from both federal and private sources.

 Internally, RENCI has developed initiatives to support this buzz. They’ve established consortiums of public and private companies, created an open-source data management software (iRODS), and started a short-course educational series, Data Matters, that takes place annually at the Friday Center.

“Data Matters is exciting because it’s new to us,” says Knowles. “It’s not academic or on campus so it’s a foray into a safe, scientific, professional space.”

UNC has allowed RENCI the freedom and license to occupy their unique position. They’re able to take risks even when the pathway isn’t clearly known. Knowles believes this speaks volumes about UNC’s forward-thinking philosophy. He also believes it informs the team’s motivation—which is part of what makes their culture so appealing.

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Knowles about the breakfast spread.

“Today’s our pancake-palooza,” he said. “Our director, Stan Ahalt, aproned-up and served pancakes to everyone this morning. It’s sort of a fun team-building experience.”

He said the breakfast gathering had a theme—two truths and a lie. Folks were encouraged to show up with a three pancake-related statements so others could guess which one was not true.

“Here’s one,” he said. “There’s an IHOP in Bahrain. There’s an IHOP in Kabul. And there’s an IHOP in Japan. Which one is a lie?”

I didn’t know.

“Japan,” he said with a laugh. “There are no IHOPs in Japan.”

Makes me happy to have learned this from a data scientist.