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Plant Sciences Building exterior

OIT empowers university research

OIT has always been an extraordinary CALS partner. I believe it’s important to understand that the boundary of the Plant Sciences Initiative stretches far past the building itself.

Jevon Smith

College of Agricultural and Life Sciences research computing manager and Plant Sciences Initiative IT project manager

Research is paramount to NC State. Central to the university’s mission is to make world-class scholarship and research matter in the lives of everyday people. The Office of Information Technology (OIT) empowers this mantra through its involvement with many university research initiatives including the Research Facilitation Service (RFS), Lab Management and Plant Sciences Initiative (PSI).

“Partnering with colleges leverages each other’s strengths and positions OIT as a trusted technological resource on campus,” said Marc I. Hoit, NC State chief information officer and vice chancellor for information technology. “We seek opportunities to collaborate with colleges, institutes, units, faculty, and staff to provide transformational, scalable and compliant technology, infrastructure and services to cost effectively support NC State’s research enterprise including data and research collected, generated and produced by the university.”

Research facilitation set into motion
In 2020, a cross-university planning team was asked to identify current research computing and data services and support available for campus. The team found that while there are many services across campus, it can be difficult to find and access the necessary support for researchers’ growing cyberinfrastructure needs, and they recommended a model to address these challenges. A larger university task force utilized this model to design, develop and implement the new Research Facilitation Service, a single point of contact for research computing and data support. Launched this year, this effort is a collaboration among the NC State University Libraries, OIT and the Office of Research and Innovation (ORI). 

At the forefront of the RFS charge is to support the needs through all phases of a research project’s lifecycle. The RFS assists researchers in determining their project computing and data needs by leveraging OIT technological services — from research data storage and high-performance computing to security and compliance guidance — as well as external services and tools when appropriate. The RFS supports both funded and unfunded research.

“The technological infrastructure needed to conduct successful, efficient and secure research is becoming increasingly complex, and while there is a wide variety of research computing and data services and support available to the NC State community, it isn’t always easy to find, evaluate and integrate various solutions,” said Susan Ivey, RFS director. “The RFS will help researchers navigate and assess a broad range of possible research solutions by partnering with a variety of campus service providers to address research computing and data needs.”

OIT supports the use of the RFS as a one-stop service for researchers and seeks to build a connection with campus IT groups, college by college. The RFS is currently piloting with the College of Sciences with plans to roll out this service to other campus entities throughout 2022-23. To learn more, visit the Research Facilitation Service.

Research labs accelerate efficiency
With a similar drive to streamline data processes, OIT and ORI have teamed up to develop an application to allow for more efficient lab services. The Lab Management software provides the campus with an online portal to submit service requests, reserve instrument time, view order history and set up use agreements, and complete instrument and required training for research lab operation.

Last year, OIT onboarded the Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE) Physical Testing Lab and the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) facility.

“The adoption of the Lab Management System was a game changer for us, allowing us to streamline billing, organize and track customer and project info, schedule equipment use, and other components,” said David Baltzegar, a senior research scholar and the facility director of the Genomic Sciences Laboratory (GSL). “The billing for core facility services is much easier, for both user and the core facility; now I can submit orders in one afternoon, a process that used to take a week or more to complete.”

The GSL was one of the original three facilities to adopt the Lab Management Software in 2017; the others were the Analytical Instrumentation Facility and the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility. 

Jack Foster, director of the OIT Enterprise Application Services team, said each lab or facility is responsible for its own scheduling, training, billing and data storage. Larger facilities on campus were able to use dedicated administrative staff to support their process, while research administrators in the smaller facilities were solely responsible for completing these tasks.

“For the smaller facilities, the Lab Management software allows research administrators to spend their time focusing on the equipment and research without the administrative burden,” said Foster. “The software delivers a cohesive platform to streamline the lab reservation and billing processes.”

Foster estimates that there are 300 external customers (i.e., other universities, corporations) and 2,000 NC State students, faculty and staff who use the Lab Management software. As more laboratories and facilities are onboarded, there is a need to develop new features for the software. To learn more, visit Lab Management Support

Plant Sciences harnesses the power of data
NC State Plant Sciences Initiative (PSI) celebrated a milestone this spring with the unveiling of its Plant Sciences Building. Located on Centennial Campus, the new building furthers PSI’s mission to create a hub for scientists, government and the industrial sector to come together to solve problems. Among the list of instrumental campus partners, OIT was all hands-on-deck working to consult and ensure that the building’s network infrastructure would be able to leverage connections across colleges, academia, government and industry. 

“OIT has always been an extraordinary CALS partner. I believe it’s important to understand that the boundary of the Plant Sciences Initiative stretches far past the building itself,” said Jevon Smith, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) research computing manager who served as the PSI IT project manager. “Dr. Hoit and team have been instrumental in partnering with us on improved connectivity across the state at research stations, field labs and extension locations.”

“Because NC State is an agriculture-centric land-grant university, rural broadband is a consistent focus of ours and a key component to our mission to add value back to the citizens of North Carolina,” Smith added. “Making the research tangible and accessible is incredibly important to us. This is what makes NC State special and a global leader in interdisciplinary research initiatives. Mobilizing a diverse set of IT leaders all with unique backgrounds, specialities and skill sets is pivotal to this work.”

Beginning with discussions in 2016, OIT was involved from the very early stages of the design process and was instrumental in ensuring that the building was equipped with high-speed 10Gb/s connectivity that is vital to several of the research programs in the building. OIT also advised on the IT workroom and caching room design and was an essential partner in activating and configuring all ports in the building. 

OIT has been partnering with PSI to acquire new positions that will help meet the research data needs of the PSI and beyond. To learn more, visit the NC Plant Sciences Initiative.