UND Today

University of North Dakota's Official News Source

Next step: NexusND

UND to initiate Grand Challenges effort with $3 million investment in technology infrastructure and workforce

Travis Desell
Computer Scientist Travis Desell says he and his students are collaboraing with a number of departments across campus on their High-Performance Computing/Big Data research needs. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Social challenges spur the need for rapid advancement of solutions. North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott uses World War II as an example.

The development of aerospace technology and radar was moving quickly in 1930s. The world had never experienced air war, and Great Britain ultimately used the creation of radar systems to fight against the Nazi aerial bombardment.

“Thankfully, even during the Great Depression, universities were doing research on these advanced ideas [that eventually saved Britain]. The timing, financially, was terrible — but it had to happen,” Hagerott explained.

North Dakota now faces financial challenges itself, but that can’t slow down higher education’s pursuit of solving state, national and global problems. UND is charging ahead in this effort with the creation of Grand Challenges, areas that will drive the University’s research activities and investments, and serve as rallying points for all faculty researchers, scholars and creative artists.

“They’re thorny problems, they’re multifaceted problems, and they need multiple viewpoints and various expertise applied in order to solve them,” said UND Vice President for Research and Economic Development Grant McGimpsey. “They naturally lend themselves to pulling together people from a wide range of disciplines.”

Teamwork and investment

The Grand Challenges currently drafted by UND’s Strategic Planning Committee include:

  • Promoting energy security and environmental sustainability
  • Helping rural communities solve their unique health and social problems
  • Addressing health challenges through basic, clinical and translational discovery
  • Driving the world-changing developments of UAS and doing so in a way that reflects our values
  • Effectively, efficiently and ethically producing, managing, and securely using information in the age of big data

“Over the coming weeks we will identify individuals to convene teams of faculty to help define and refine these Grand Challenges such that they are aligned with UND’s strengths and resources, and to help identify new resource needs — both infrastructure and researchers,” McGimpsey said.

Grant McGimpsey
UND Vice President for Research & Economic Development Grant McGimpsey is leading an effort at UND to address a number of Grand Challenges in the State through research that includes High-Performance Computing/Big Data. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

To prepare for accelerated research on the Grand Challenges, UND plans to invest $3 million in NexusND infrastructure, a statewide research and education initiative sparked by Chancellor Hagerott. NexusND focuses on North Dakota’s high-growth sectors: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), cybersecurity and High-Performance Computing (HPC)/Big Data.

High-performance computing

Much of the proposed $3 million designation would go toward infrastructure and people to handle big data needs on campus. For UND Assistant Professor of Computer Science Travis Desell, additional hardware, software and especially system administrators and researchers can’t come fast enough. He’s one of the few faculty members with a research area focused on high-performance computing.

“We need people,” Desell said. “There are so many research projects here on campus, and so many different departments that need computational help. It’s holding us back.”

Besides being a pivotal piece in understanding UAS data, Desell says he and his students have collaborated with a number of departments on campus for their big data and HPC research needs, including Geology, Biology, and even English. Those students gain the experience and then leave the state for job opportunities.

“But if we had a robust infrastructure, and a community based on doing high-performance computing and data analysis, we could get some companies here for that, UAS and otherwise. That could buck that trend and keep graduates here,” Desell said.

Mike Hagerott
UND plans to partner with North Dakota State University, Minot State University and eventually Bismarck State College to create an online graduate certificate program and professional short courses in cybersecurity, part of a an initiative of North Dakota University System Chancellor Mike Hagerott (right), called NexusND. It would be a first-of-its kind multi-campus partnership in North Dakota. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.


Once data is collected and crunched with high-performance computing, it needs to be transferred. That’s where cybersecurity becomes critical.

“There’s no doubt that cybersecurity is a growing issue, and it will be with us for the long term,” said Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Steve Light, who is working with Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Prakash Ranganathan and others to develop a cybersecurity program at UND. “By higher education standards, there are only a limited number of institutions that have invested in cybersecurity programs. If we’re not in at the ground floor there, we’re certainly on the first floor.”

Steve Light
Steve Light. UND Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs

In the framework of state collaboration through NexusND, UND plans to partner with North Dakota State University, Minot State University and eventually Bismarck State College to create an online graduate certificate program and professional short courses in cybersecurity. It would be a first-of-its kind multi-campus partnership in North Dakota.

“As we get these programs stood up, we — UND and all of NDUS — hope to become a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity, through the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency,” Light said.

In addition to these progressions, UND’s goal is to eventually offer a minor, or perhaps a master’s degree, in cybersecurity.

In a recent survey of airmen at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, cybersecurity was among the top three academic programs they were most interested in. Light is optimistic about helping them meet that need, as well as needs of other industries in business, computer science and engineering.

Campus evolutions in high-performance computing and cybersecurity will also connect to UAS, the third leg of the NexusND initiative. Look for more on developments in UND’s unmanned effort in an upcoming edition of UND Today.

“There’s epic, fundamental technological change happening,” Chancellor Hagerott said. “It’s now acknowledged across the planet, and UND is uniquely positioned to capitalize on that.”

For more budget-related communications, click on the Budget tab of the UND Today homepage.