Purdue Profiles: Michael McLennan

February 3, 2015  

Michael McLennan

Michael McLennan, senior research scientist in ITaP Research Computing and director of HUBzero. (Purdue University photo/John Underwood)
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Michael McLennan has a simple philosophy: He never wants to feel like he's just coasting through another day at the office.

McLennan is a senior research scientist in ITaP Research Computing and director of HUBzero, a powerful Web-based platform that scientists, engineers and physicians around the world use to create online collaboratives, or "hubs," for their communities. 

As such, McLennan pushes himself and his employees to provide the best possible experience for researchers who use HUBzero. Along the way, McLennan surrounds himself with colorful memorabilia that underscores the fun he derives from his job.

What is HUBzero, and what is your role related to it?

Purdue researchers developed HUBzero, and it is a powerful, open-source platform for creating websites that support research and education. HUBzero was born from nanoHUB.org, which was created in 2002 through a National Science Foundation grant. NanoHUB provides researchers with resources in the area of nanoelectronics, nanobiotechnology, nanophotonics and nanomaterials.

Around 2008, we were getting a lot of requests from researchers interested in creating their own hubs. So we took the guts of nanoHUB and created a generic package called HUBzero. Now, HUBzero allows researchers to create websites through which they can network and share information while creating, publishing and accessing data and interactive analysis tools.

For instance, HUBzero allows researchers to use interactive simulation/modeling tools that help them visualize their data in novel ways. HUBzero also offers data storage and comprehensive database support, and it includes project collaboration tools that make large projects easier to manage.

There are 27 hubs at Purdue that have been created through HUBzero, and 30-plus more running elsewhere around the world. We have 25 staff members who manage and support the hubs. It's my job to oversee the staff and help researchers on campus learn more about whether using HUBzero would benefit them. I also write proposals to various agencies to help fill the funding gaps when we're trying to create and implement new HUBzero features.

What are some examples of existing hubs?

Most of our hubs -- 21 of them, in fact -- service Purdue faculty's sponsored research projects. For instance, there is a hub for the Purdue University Research Repository, Purdue’s institutional solution for data management, and another for the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, which is a key component of the University's Purdue Moves initiatives. Most of the largest sponsored projects on campus have their own hubs.

Six of our hubs are for external clients. There's one for a project run through the National Cancer Institute, for example. So I spend some of my time working with these external clients to determine how we might best support and manage their needs.

Could you describe one future area of focus for HUBzero?

We're working on ways that HUBzero might eventually become self-sustainable financially. Right now, HUBzero is mostly soft-funded, meaning that it runs off funds associated with each hub's individual sponsored research projects. However, in the long term, it would be more sustainable to have the user community contribute.

To that end, we're working on a subscription capability through which researchers would be able to pay for premium tools and services. For example, researchers could pay for a "prime" service that delivers simulation results faster, or they could purchase additional storage space for data management.

My background is in software architecture, so I'm always looking toward the future of HUBzero's capabilities and usability. I want using HUBzero to be as seamless as possible, and I want it to tightly focus on its academic mission of supporting research and education.

What are some of the primary challenges of your job?

At any one time, there are a lot of spinning plates. As you can imagine, we have a lot of clients with a lot of very specialized needs, so it can become challenging to balance it all. But we have a great team full of employees who are dedicated and passionate about this, and so they help make my job easy.

What about your job is rewarding?

I like building things and creating new functionalities, and being able to do that on a regular basis here at Purdue is just very fun for me. Without the technology of HUBzero, our researchers' work wouldn't be as successful, and it's very rewarding to know that we can help them in that way.

Another big part of my philosophy is that I want the work that we do to be awesome, and I never want to feel like I'm just trudging into another day at the office. I'm a big comic book fan, and I love reading and watching movies. My wife buys me a lot of memorabilia related to these hobbies. I keep most of it in my office to remind me to always have fun. I really do love what I'm doing and I think my office reflects that.

Writer: Amanda Hamon Kunz, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu 

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