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Digital Teams in Academe

From Information Technology Magazine at the University of Virginia
November 20, 2001

digital teams

by Kathleen Valenzi
President, Red Hill Communications, and freelance writer and frequent contributor to University and Charlottesville publications

In the world of higher education, collaborations are commonplace. Whether departmental colleagues or scholar-peers from differing institutions, the members of university faculties typically bring their intellects to bear on common research interests, co-producing books and journal articles aimed at advancing knowledge in their respective fields.

But in recent years, at the University of Virginia, a new type of faculty collaboration has begun to emerge: one in which scholars are pairing up with IT professionals to develop digital tools for conducting and disseminating research. And just as the careers of these scholars are being enhanced by their use of information technology, the careers and creativity of the technologists who assist them are also being forwarded in the collaborative process.

One of the most unique expressions of this new type of collaboration is found in the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, or IATH, which has fostered collaboration and co-development efforts between technologists and humanists since its founding in 1992.

"About ten years ago, a committee was formed to discuss computing at the University," recalls history professor Ed Ayers, now Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. "William Wulf, an engineering professor and computer scientist, was the committee's chairman. He came into our meeting and said that IBM was interested in working with us if we could come up with an interesting proposal. I pointed out that in the College, we didn't even have computers on our desks, and Bill immediately saw that the greatest room for innovation lay in the humanities.

Ayer's quote

"Imagine, here was this engineer who looked past school allegiances and stepped up to the plate and said, 'The humanities are the place we can make the biggest impact,'" Ayers adds with evident respect for his across-Grounds colleague. "So we put together a proposal. IBM would supply the equipment, and we would supply the intellectual capital" with a goal of developing information technologies in support of humanities research.

The institute's focus on research, versus teaching, was intentional, says John Unsworth, who has served as IATH's director since 1993. "The initial observation was that we'd already spent a lot of time trying to change faculty cultures by throwing technology into the classroom, but at least in the humanities, that hadn't led to major changes," he says. "Since the highest priority in a research university is research, the contention was that if you wanted to change faculty culture you needed to change the way in which faculty do research, and that requires using information technology as a research tool."

But easier said than done. Humanists are experts in topics like monastic life in 9th-century France or Shakespearean drama. Few are experts in computer science. Nor should they have to be. And this recognition ultimately lies at the heart of IATH's success.

"Humanists cannot be expected to learn computer science at a high enough level of expertise to build the types of digital research tools that are required for the advancement of scholarship," says Ayers. "That was the greatest insight we had when IATH was formed. This was going to have to be an alliance with IT professionals from the outset."

As initially conceived, IATH would sponsor two humanities professors a year as institute technologist (recruited from the University's Information Technology and Communication (ITC) division), plus providing the necessary funding to develop the fellows' IT-based research ideas over the period of one year. Each professional would bring to the table his or her respective expertise in humanities and computing and work toward the common goal of using IT to support humanities research in creative ways.

After the year's funding runs out, IATH fellows are expected to continue their projects with funds obtained through grants and other sources. However, those who do not succeed at finding additional funding are not turned away after a year's time. "All of these projects are larger than that," says Unsworth. "Like most humanities research projects, regardless of medium, they probably have an eight- to ten-year life cycle from conception to completion."

Ed Ayers and English professor Jerry McGann volunteered to serve as IATH's two "prototype" fellows for 1992-93, the institute's first year of operation. Alan Batson, who was heading U.Va.'s academic computing department at that time, recruited two technologists, systems analysts Ross Wayland and Thorny Staples, to work with IATH and partner with Ayers and McGann, respectively.

In hindsight, the four people selected to pioneer the IATH concept couldn't have been better chosen. "The reason all this has worked is because of the imagination and energy of Thorny and Ross, the two original technologists recruited to get it going," says Ayers. "If either of them had had the wrong combination of skills or personality, this collaborative concept would have crashed and burned."

Interestingly, the technologists see the credit going in the opposite direction. "The success of IATH goes to Ed and Jerry," says Ross Wayland, "not only for their vision about what technology could do for teaching and research, but also about their own passion for teaching and research."

Regardless of who gets credit, it is clear that these initial collaborations are now considered unqualified successes and set the stage for the numerous other IATH success stories that have followed. But back in 1992, the outcome of these initial collaborations wasn't quite so certain.

Prior to working with historian Ed Ayers on his ground-breaking "Valley of the Shadow" project -- an IT masterpiece depicting the histories of two communities on either side of the Mason-Dixon line during the era of the American Civil War -- Ross Wayland had mostly been helping to solve computing problems for U.Va. scientists. In fact, the majority of his work had centered on the needs of faculty members whose interests lay in the area of gaseous energy. Coming from such a purely scientific environment, where the challenges -- primarily computational -- could generally be solved if enough computing power was available, Wayland found his sudden transition into the humanities to be "a bit of a culture shock," he admits.

"Ed presented me with a whole new set of computing problems, and there were no ready-made software packages available to solve those problems," says Wayland, who has a bachelor of science in physics and a master's degree in computer science.

At the time IATH was founded, the World Wide Web did not yet exist, so "there were no tools to help intersperse databases, images, videos, and integrate all these things Ed wanted to bring together into one coherent piece for users," Wayland says. "Coming up with an infrastructure to hang all these media types onto was a real challenge. Luckily, for us, HTML came along. The Web was a godsend because it provided a means for linking a lot of different documents."

Despite his professed culture shock, Wayland found that he thrived in the humanities-based collaborative undertaking with Ayers. "I enjoy a challenge, and I like working on problems that have not already been solved," he says. Wayland's knowledge of databases and programming gave him the skills he needed to do his job well.

From today's vantage point, Wayland says, it can be easy to take for granted the look and feel of the 'Valley of the Shadow' Web site (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/vshadow/vshadow.html). "But at that time, what Ed was trying to create -- this new tool for teaching people about history, and totally immersing them into a world in which all aspects of the Civil War, including the lives of the people it affected, was presented -- was a new concept. I can still look at the 'Valley' today and find pieces I haven't discovered yet. It's a really nice piece of work."

After two years of association with IATH, Wayland was offered a position as manager of U.Va.'s Academic Computing-Health Systems (ACHS) group, a collaborative effort between ITC and the University's Health System that was established to make computing support more directly accessible to the health sciences community.

After five years of handling computing challenges for ACHS, Wayland once again headed back in the direction of humanities when he became associate director of U.Va.'s Digital Library Research and Development group -- a post he still holds. (Established in 1999, Digital Library Research and Development group is charged with pulling together the systems, tools, and procedures needed to provide access to the digital resources and services that would be found in a major 21st-century university research library.)

Through each iteration of his career, Wayland has never forgotten an important lesson learned from his days with IATH. "Back then, the area I grew the most in was in perspective," he says. "Too often in the past, I've seen faculty experts come to technologists and say, 'This I what I want to do,' and the response they get back is, 'Why would you want to do that?' What I learned from working with humanities faculty was not to question 'Why,' but to ask, 'How am I going to do what they want to get done?"

Thorny Staples, the other technologist recruited to assist IATH's second prototype fellow, Jerry McGann, brought not only a background in engineering and computing to his new post, but also an intimate association with the humanities. Staples was not only a serious sculptor in his own right, but he had also done a lot of work for Judy Thomas, who at that time was serving as the slide manager of U.Va.'s Department of Art. (Thomas is now an assistant director of the Robertson Media Center at Alderman Library.) Together with Thomas and another colleague, Staples had participated in a project that looked at how best to classify digital images for art students. "This project forced us to begin looking at art slides in a whole new way," he says, "because the standard library cataloging approaches didn't work very well."

So, with one foot in each world, Staples began his collaboration with McGann. What the English professor hoped to create through this collaboration was a hypermedia research archive that would facilitate the scholarly study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a 19th-century British painter, designer, writer and translator. The archive (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/rossetti/), which now contains an impressive amount of source materials, remains a work in progress. As technology improves, it will eventually give scholars access to all of Rossetti's original works, pictorial as well as textual.

According to Staples, an SGML expert named John Price Wilkins who worked in the University library at that time provided additional input. "Jerry knew about the content, John about SGML markup, and I knew about various computing applications," Staples says. "That first year, we spent a lot of time arguing over various meanings in our respective fields. Jerry would say he wanted to do a certain type of thing, and theoretically, I was supposed to be bringing some practicality to the table, in terms of saying whether it was possible to do what he wanted to do or not."

One of the things that Staples believed helped him to design the Rossetti archive was his training as an artist. "My brain's wired differently in terms of three-dimensional perception," he says. "When you're a sculptor, you have to think in three dimensions and perceive and imagine in three dimensions. There is something about information structure design that I think works on the same principle. In fact, I call what I did 'information sculpting,' because building patterns with digital information is a lot like building sculptures. You're not trying to put one foot in front of the other, but trying to imagine how you can structure information so that it can be used in any imaginable way possible."

Staples remained with IATH for four years and assisted numerous other fellows in achieving their IT-based research goals -- even helping out on Ayer's "Valley of the Shadow" project after Wayland left for ACHS. In time, Staples was promoted to associate director and project director of IATH.

As project director, Staples became the person responsible for coordinating the development of all IATH projects. It was a challenging job. "There were days where I'd find myself sitting around a table and talking for one hour about a Pompeii project, and another hour about how the manumission of slaves in ancient times was carved into stadiums as a form of public document, and yet another hour about sustainable design in Owings Mills, Maryland. It would be a whole day made up of different hours," he says.

In addition to his responsibilities with IATH, Staples also participated on a grant funded by the Getty Institute. Called the Museum Educational Site Licensing (MESL) project, the grant brought together seven art museums and seven universities, including U.Va., for the purpose of defining the rules by which the universities could use digital art from the museums' collections for educational purposes.

This combination of experiences -- with IATH and the MESL grant -- led to Staples' next job: that of chief of the Office of Information Technology for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. In this prestigious post, Staples had oversight of all computer support for the museum ("which was a nightmare," he says), as well as oversight of the museum's in-house groups that were involved with various aspects of new media. "We did a lot of virtual exhibits and worked with a lot of museum curators," he says.

Eventually, Staples grew tired of working in D.C., so when the Digital Library initiative took hold at U.Va., he leapt at the opportunity to come back to work for his alma mater. Now director of the same Digital Library Research and Development group for which Wayland works, he is deeply immersed in a variety of issues centered on building a digital library system. He feels that his prior career experiences uniquely qualify him to play a critical role in the digital library arena.

One of the innovative ideas that Staples' group is developing is the concept of "information communities" -- learning and teaching environments in which subject-driven Web sites are developed around print and digital versions of the University library's collections, as well as the teaching interests of the Virginia faculty. "This concept is a lot like IATH was at the beginning," he says. "We have a feel for the idea and for how it will work, and we have two pilot projects that we're now working on." (One is centered on Tibetan scholarship and teaching and the other involves American Studies scholarship and teaching.)

"Considering the many, many communities contained within the University, the evolution of different types of information communities will undoubtedly continue to expand," Staples says. It's a prospect he seems to relish. "Even though what I do can drive me crazy to a certain point, I love change and chaos."

While the original IATH model has been modified (no more one-on-one pairing of technologists and fellows, for example, and the addition of non-resident fellows from other institutions), the goals of the institute have not changed. Since it's creation, IATH has assisted more than 43 current and former fellows, associate fellows, and visiting fellows in exploring and expanding the potential of information technology as a tool for their research.

Today, IATH employs nine full-time staff members, including programmers, a systems engineer, an information architect, a Web designer, and a design editor. "What we have now is a range of expertise within the people on our staff," says IATH's director, John Unsworth. "Those people contribute as needed on our projects, and some projects, by their nature, will draw more heavily on one person than another." (Unsworth, by the way, has the distinction of being the first member of the Virginia faculty -- and probably of any university faculty -- to have received tenure based on electronic publishing in the humanities.)

From Unsworth's vantage point, one of the most valuable parts of the collaborative process for the institute's fellows may be the design process itself. "Designing a research project using information technologies forces our fellows to do something that they are not necessarily accustomed to have to do," Unsworth says. "In order to walk through the design process, they must be completely explicit about everything they think they know about a subject, so that it can be expressed in some why that is decipherable to a computing professional."

Consequently, "for the technologists on our staff, there are lots of opportunities for creativity," he adds, "not only because the technology is constantly changing, but also because we have new projects coming in that have new requirements every year. For example, Kirk Hastings, one of the people here who is really expert in text technologies, markup languages, and searching and manipulating text, is working closely with faculty fellow Anne Kinney on a Chinese text. Kirk has already done a tremendous amount of work since July to become familiar with Chinese text and coding. While Kirk doesn't speak Chinese, he's probably going to learn some."

Of course, collaborations between technologists and Virginia faculty extend far beyond the humanities. Some are growing out of the Research Computing Support Group, an offshoot of the Computing Support Division of ITC.

David Drake, for example, a University alumnus with a Ph.D. in physics and a background in image processing, recently helped biology professor Bob Kretsinger set up a new software package called Ribbons for use in teaching his undergraduate students how to analyze proteins. "Dr. Kretsinger needed a tool that would help his students to visualize the proteins, and approached our group about helping him to use the software," Drake says.

Besides providing that assistance, Drake also developed for Kretsinger a class Web page use the software, and get around a Unix operating system, which is more command driven than point-and-click.

In addition to his work with Kretsinger, Drake is involved in two other collaborations: one entails helping a medical researcher create a visual model of a sperm-cell protein membrane and the other, conducted at the request of a medical research team, involves taking apart a complex, tightly integrated imaging program that is currently used for several different purposes, including the detection of breast cancer. The program was originally written by a former U.Va. graduate student, and the research team hopes that by having Drake take it apart and rebuild it, the revised program will be easier to use in various laboratory settings.

Another Research Computing Support Group staff member is Ed Hall, a Ph.D. electrical engineer with expertise in mathematics/visualization software like Matlab, Mathematica, Maple and IMSL. Recently, Hall collaborated with a post-doctoral student who wanted to visualize and quantify the results of computer simulations that model the deformation of crystal lattices bombarded by a stream of atoms. "The bombardment produces a crater in the crystal lattice surface," says Hall, "and he wanted to visualize the deformed surface and perform quantitative analyses of the crater geometry. I was able to use Matlab to read in the output of his molecular dynamics simulations, construct a representation of the lattice surface, and automatically determine crater length, width, and volume."

Currently, Hall is collaborating on three other projects, all involving Matlab. One involves the work of mathematics faculty Doug Lake, who wants to analyze and efficiently process massive amounts of fetal heart-rate data. The second entails working with astronomy professor John Hawley to create 3-D visualizations using streamlines to represent magnetic force fields associated with black hole accretion disks. The third centers on the work of a neurology post-doc, Christine Thiffault, who wants to use wavelets to detect changes in the pattern of a cellular fluorescence signal extracted from an image sequence.

For both Drake and Hall, their collaborations allow them to develop greater expertise in the advanced features of the software packages supported by the Research Computing Support Group. They can then apply this expertise to help other users who come in seeking assistance for their particular problems. "This transfer of skills to new problems is very satisfying." says Hall, "and helps to keep us up to date with the research computing software technology."

Even students have seen their careers take off as the result of faculty collaborations. Consider the example of Edward O'Neil. In May 1996, O'Neil was a second-year computer science major looking for summer employment. His undergraduate advisor put him in touch with chemistry professor Charles Grisham, who was seeking a student with some programming skills to help put together instructional tools for an interactive biological chemistry Web course that Grisham was developing as a 1996 fellow of the Teaching + Technology Initiative.

O'Neil quote

Two years earlier, Grisham had co-authored a textbook called Biochemistry, and while the book itself was well-received, its author was disappointed at the limitations of the book form as a teaching tool. On paper, drawings of the proteins and nucleic acids that are involved in the body's molecular processes are restricted to two-dimensional form. And while it was possible to create three-dimensional models of proteins and nucleic acids for students to look at in a classroom, such models were not only difficult to produce but also equally difficult to alter in order to show how molecules interact and combine to form new molecules.

"I began to wonder, could you bring computers to this job?" Grisham says. With the support of a TTI fellowship, and with the help of O'Neil he proceeded to find out.

From 1996 to 1998, O'Neil and Grisham worked together developing a library of computerized exercises and three-dimensional models using Java and a Netscape molecular modeling plug-in called Chime. One part of the project involved writing and debugging 27 individual programs that were to be used by Grisham as animated instructional tools -- each one able to teach students about a particular chemical reaction mechanism.

"Each program contained a couple of thousand lines of code," says O'Neil. "You can't imagine the tedium of putting one of these together. This may have been the biggest thing that Charlie undertook."

Grisham admits that the programs were "a nightmare" that ended up taking hundreds of hours and lots of money to iron out. Consequently, he was thrilled when O'Neil came to him one day and said, "You know, we could be doing this a whole different way."

O'Neil's idea involved writing a Java program that would essentially allow an instructor to create instructional tutorials, like the ones they were painstakingly creating by hand. "It would be an instructional-tools design program that anyone could use," Grisham says. "The design program creates a data-storage file in XML and a Java playback program. All the instructional logic would be stored in the program's XML file. An instructor could use the design program to code the steps involved in any type of reaction mechanism, and then use a player program so that students could access the instructional exercise on the Web."

By writing a software program for the creation of instructional software, Grisham says, "We not only solved one little problem for ourselves, but also problems for many other people. It was Eddie's knowledge and his ability to see a different programming paradigm that allowed all this to happen."

According to O'Neil, the new software program was, indeed, the collaboration's "crowning achievement." "Faculty members who can't write computer programs still have all the desire in the world to teach well," he says. "When you can hand them something that takes away the complexity of writing software, but that still gives them the ability to develop software to educate their students, you've done a great service."

In May 1998, O'Neil graduated from U.Va. with a B.S. degree in computer science and an offer of employment from a consulting firm. As it would turn out, O'Neil disliked consulting for a living, so he quit his job and returned to U.Va. to pursue a master's degree in his field. As much as he could, given the demands and dictates of his graduate program, O'Neil continued to do computing work on the side for Grisham.

Over the course of this multi-year collaboration, O'Neil says that he learned several important things. One was how to communicate with a superior and relate to that person as a peer. Another was how to function independently and to learn the basics of writing software. Those skills, plus his graduate work with a computer science professor whose field is information retrieval, positioned O'Neil to compete for the job he now holds with BEA, a prominent Internet infrastructure and e-commerce business located in Colorado.

"A lot of people that I work with at BEA are senior people who have been doing this work for years," says O'Neil, who received his master's degree last May. "But not me. I've only just finished my master's degree, so I'm in a unique position within the company. I believe that the only reason I am here today is because I started out with Charlie and began to get practical programming experience at an early stage in my education. That, plus the valuable systems experience I had gained as a graduate student gave me the ability to compete. I really give Charlie credit for taking a chance on me and for giving me the opportunity to lay the foundation for getting into this stuff. Things have really worked out well for me."

As far as Grisham is concerned, Eddie O'Neil was the right person at the right time. "He was a neat kid who really threw himself into his work," he says. "When we started, Eddie was a programmer and I was a teacher. He didn't understand a thing about biochemistry, and vice versa. At the time, U.Va. was not teaching students about Java, but I was able to convince Eddie to learn it on his own, and as it turns out, Java was able to open windows and doors for him.

"The reason our collaboration worked was that we sat down together and hammered things out," Grisham adds. "He'd ask me, 'What are you trying to do here?' and I'd tell him, and then we'd go back and forth, with Eddie telling me the limits of the program, and me telling him what my aspirations as a teacher were. There was a constant intimate interaction, and that's what made this work." (To get a flavor for their project, visit Grisham's original developmental Web site at tti.itc.virginia.edu/~cmg.)

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