Maxine Brown Puts Chicago at the Center of High-Speed Computer Networking

March 17, 2009

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As part of this year's Chicago Matters series, we're profiling visionaries with an eye on our region's future. Each one is leading the way in such fields as science, finance and the arts. Today we bring you the story of computer scientist Maxine Brown. Brown's also one of the principals behind a digital project that puts Chicago at the cutting edge of advanced networking.

In high school, Maxine Brown thought she wanted to be an artist. Instead, she wound up in computer science.

BROWN: You know some girls maybe are just born to be nerds or nerdy. I felt very comfortable…I was a little bit chubby and I loved the computer parts of it, I mean really liked the programming, and so I was happy to do the nerd speak and…I did feel like one of the guys.

She also specializes in human speak. Maxine was the first staff person hired at the Electronic Visualization Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Part of her job is to convey the lab's complex ideas on a level non-technical people, like most of us, can understand.

At first glance, what the lab is doing seems…familiar. It looks like the coolest rec room you've ever been in. Along one wall is a huge rectangular screen made up of fifty-five high definition monitors welded together in five rows of eleven. There's a table-top interactive graphic display resembling an air hockey game. But the images on it are four times the resolution of standard high definition television.

Grad student Khairi Reda demonstrates a machine that looks like a giant I-Pod and uses the same touch technology.

Ambi of Khairi explaining the table top Reda.

REDA:  Now we have the technology to use our hands for example to zoom out and zoom in to specific spaces, pan the data around, see in more detail a particular phenomena that they are visualizing.

So scientists can see more of their data, and in finer detail than ever before.

REDA: It's very intuitive and also allows multiple people to do it at the same time.

BROWN: you know it well Kari that's great!

Brown is frequent with praise and support – she considers it part of her job.
 
BROWN: Unofficially I'm Mom in this lab…(laughs)

Her ultimate goal though is supporting collaboration between scientists. The lab not only works to make huge amounts of complex data legible and easy to manipulate. They're making it possible for scientists to share data in real time, even across great distances.

BROWN: The great minds are distributed all over the world and they're trying to work with their peers in order to solve these complex problems. They want the high fidelity audio and video because they're looking at whole expression, the eyes the body language. These are other ways we all communicate but we haven't been able to do that easily because we couldn't discern it.

It's easier to do now, thanks to high speed networks. Which leads us to one of Maxine's greatest accomplishments. To see it, we have to leave UIC and head to the other side of the city.

Ambi footsteps, door, etc.

If you want to visit the world's most advanced communication facility, you have to keep its location under your hat. About all I can tell you is that it's at Northwestern University.

BROWN: We don't publicize the address

MAMBRETTI You can say it's on the downtown campus

That's Joe Mambretti with Maxine. They helped create this facility which is called the StarLight hub for advanced research and education networks.

The networks come through Starlight from around the world and range in size from one to ten gigabytes. They operate at speeds thousands of times faster than the connections most consumers, businesses and governments use.

StarLight connects hundreds of thousands of individual sites.

MAMBRETTI: And over here we're directly connected to CERN, the particle physics lab. This is the largest science experiment in the world.

The two rooms are filled with rows upon rows of racks containing routers and switches and patches. Running from the machines and traveling in trays overhead are octopus-like tangles of multi-colored wires and fiber optic cables.

When I ask them what would happen if the facility went down Maxine and Joe look aghast: 

MAMBRETTI We would prefer not to imagine that scenario. 

BROWN Think of O'Hare and how important O'Hare is to global transportation. If that airport were closed for any reason…planes could be re-routed but it would still bring transportation as we know it to a bad place.
 
That's unlikely to happen, given the number of back-up systems in place at StarLight.

And that's a good thing. StarLight supports hundreds of significant scientific experiments all over the world, many of which need to run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Keeping them going is crucial.

MAXINE: Well we're inventing the future when you get down to it. Not many people relate to what I do because it is ivory tower or cone head as Saturday Night Live might say. We're all thinking about what are going to do next. I'm happy to be working with really smart people with really bright ideas.

Eventually those ideas - from high speed networks to interactive graphic technologies – will make their way to regular consumers. And that means Chicago and its residents won't just have access to advanced computer networks. We'll also be at the very center of the emerging digital economy.