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Mark Wilson: What’s Not to Like?

The night was warm, and campus seemed deserted. But if passersby had looked up at the right time, they would have seen two young men climbing up the outside of the Engineering Building, hand over hand, swinging into an open window on the third floor.

Cat burglars? No, just wannabe computer programmers. Mark Wilson, who was at that time a first-year UI student, remembers how he and a friend would scale the building so they could sit and play at the terminal to the university’s main frame computer. The hallway door was locked, but the window remained open because the building wasn’t air conditioned. The exterior wall of the building itself offered convenient handholds and footholds, perfect for climbers.

Wilson says they’d play for hours, trying hard to look like they were supposed to be there.

Making Adjustments

mark-wilsonClearly, Mark Wilson likes a challenge. Now director of research computing at IIHR, he started out at the university as a music major. Music was important to him, but in his first semester at Iowa he decided to switch to engineering. The saxophonist continued to be active in music, however, performing with the marching band and the Johnson County Landmark jazz band.

Wilson majored in civil and environmental engineering, but his focus was in the new biomedical engineering program. He went on to earn a master’s degree in mechanics and hydraulics, in the days when Hunter Rouse was the dean of the College of Engineering. After graduation, he went to work for the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the UI hospital. He was involved in the development of several biomedical devices related to scoliosis. He also worked in the Gait Lab, studying how people walked. “I can still recognize people more by how they walk than by their faces,” Wilson says.

He also got his formal start in electronics and computer programming in orthopedics. That was the era of punchcard computing, and Wilson remembers that sometimes the cards numbered in the thousands. He’d sometimes hand off his boxes of punchcards to the computer operators at midnight with a pizza to encourage them to run his massive job.

The Big Interview

After a year as a graduate student in the physics and astronomy department and a stint as a full-time employee at the UI Center for Computer-Aided Design (CCAD), Wilson came to IIHR in 1989. He remembers his job interview with IIHR Director Jack Kennedy. “He asked me some questions that I really didn’t want to answer,” Wilson says. “[Kennedy] slapped the table, leaned forward, and said, ‘That’s not an answer!’” Wilson got the job anyway. Working with Kennedy was interesting, Wilson says. “He talked to everybody. He was very interested in what everybody was doing and how they were doing it — and how well they were doing it.”

In his 25 years at the institute, Wilson has overseen the standardization of data acquisition and the creation of Helium, the university’s high-performance computing cluster. With Professor Ching-Long Lin, Wilson was able to bring together a group of researcher/investors willing to contribute money to the project in exchange for access. A local user group governs its use and future. Wilson says that Helium has been very successful, and last year it was joined by Neon, a newer version. Wilson says he’s pleased to see Helium successfully roll over to Neon. “I think we have a sustainable model,” he notes.

“I feel like I have the best job in the university,” Wilson says. “There are lots of interesting problems. What’s not to like? You have dirt and water and lasers and sand and computers. If you’re an engineer, that’s a lot of fun stuff to play with.”

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Last modified on June 29th, 2015
Posted on April 6th, 2015

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