Research lives: In the vanguard of the computing revolution

Prof JC Desplat, director ofthe Irish Centre for High-End Computing, on the practical applications of his work

First up, what does JC stand for? 

It’s French: JC stands for Jean-Christophe. Everyone calls me JC.

The Irish Centre for High-end Computing. What’s it about?

We call it Ichec for short. We work on ways to make computing work more efficiently. That might involve writing software in a clever way to make it compute faster or curating large data sets in a way that researchers can use them more effectively.

We are partly state-funded by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Department of Education and Skills and hosted by NUI Galway, and I am based in the Dublin office.

So you work with supercomputers?

We do host the Irish supercomputer, Fionn, but supercomputers are really only the tip of the iceberg for high-performance computing.

Most of the devices we use – phones or laptops and maybe the less visible machines that help our lives and transport run smoothly – have microprocessing technology within them. We work on making that everyday microprocessing work better.

Then, for computing that needs a bit more speed or scale, we can host more powerful analyses on our servers so you are not sitting at your laptop for hours and hours waiting for the answer.

We crunch those numbers in the cloud for you.

What can you do with this clever computing?

With high-performance computing we can drastically speed up the time needed to analyse data, or we can reduce the amount of battery power needed to run a device.

We can also answer bigger-scale questions, such as modelling for more detailed weather forecasts, or helping car manufacturers deal with the massive amounts of data they collect from their production.

In practical terms, we work in partnership with lots of experts in industry, in academic research and in public services. They include data modellers, medical researchers, the energy industry . . . The list goes on and on, because so many people and enterprises can benefit from more efficient computing.

Describe a typical day in the office

I am an early riser; I get up around 5am. Three mornings a week I go to the gym. I find exercising is a very good way to manage stress and stay healthy.

At the office my main responsibility is to define the strategy for the centre and oversee its implementation. So my daily routine reflects this: I spend a lot of time writing business plans and proposals, and preparing reports for our funders.

I also handle a lot of requests we get from researchers and industry who want to use our expertise. I am ultimately responsible for making sure the staff here are happy and enjoy the challenge of their work. They are expert technologists with valuable skills and they drive the operation here.

What excites you in work at the moment?

It is very geeky but I am very excited about the European Space Agency Sentinel programme that collects information about the surface of the Earth using next-generation satellites. Being able to use that kind of information can bring so many societal benefits, like understanding how our planet is changing and how to protect natural resources. That also translates into better plans for flooding, to deal with coastal erosion, helping us to use crops more effectively.

At Ichec we are busy developing a portal and archive to bring the benefits of the high-resolution data from satellites to industry, the public sector and academia.