Looking Back with Larry

Larry Smarr in the news:
The Atlantic, “The Measured Man”
New York Times, “A ‘Big Data’ Freeway for Scientists”

A scientific visionary retires.

Where does one begin with Larry Smarr? He’s a pioneer in supercomputing, an advocate for research partnerships that stretch across disciplines and sectors, and a man who turned his own body into a laboratory in the name of science. 

It may be most logical to start at the turn of the millennium, when Smarr became the founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), a cutting-edge interdisciplinary research and education institute with divisions on our campus and UC Irvine. Smarr has dedicated the last 20 years of his career to shaping the future of this innovation hub, but his impact goes far beyond the bounds of this campus, and certainly surpasses the limits of this page. So here are the highlights, the “greatest hits” of this esteemed innovator: 

The Great Collaborator 

Leading Calit2 was a capstone in Smarr’s long career connecting seemingly disparate fields of study. As an experiment to address society’s most complex challenges with a multidisciplinary mindset, Smarr took an active approach in molding the institute, which includes UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute (QI), by seeking out new partnerships, deconstructing hierarchies, and opening facilities to the campus and public. The institute is now the preeminent place where students, faculty, the community, and companies ranging from startups to large corporations, collaborate to apply advanced technologies to a wide variety of challenges. 

A Measured Man 

Smarr is also the man who, upon experiencing worsening intestinal pain, used skills he’d honed during his prior 25 years as an astrophysicist to analyze a time-series of his own blood and stool biomarkers, leading him to a diagnosis—chronic Crohn’s disease. He then pulled together a collaborative team of expert UC San Diego doctors and QI research staff to create an interactive 3-D visualization of his abdominal organs to help preplan his own surgery, techniques now being used to improve surgical outcomes for others. With UC San Diego’s Rob Knight and the Knight Lab, Smarr is now exploring how his gut microbiome ecology changed over the course of his disease and throughout his recovery, including the impact of dietary changes. 

Big Data Visionary 

Perhaps one of Smarr’s most enduring legacies derives from his ability to recognize shifts in culture and technology before they happen. Even before “Big Data” became a buzzword, Smarr recognized the need to develop much faster networks that could handle the exponential increase in all types of data. This led to his ongoing project, the NSF-funded Pacific Research Platform, a “superhighway” of cyberinfrastructure that enables superfast data sharing between researchers in California and around the world.