Princeton bets big on research software engineering

Written by
Eoin O'Carroll
Aug. 17, 2022

Over the past five years, Princeton's research software engineers (RSEs) have transformed a variety of research projects across campus, building software tools that sequence proteins, reconstruct events in supercolliders, model gene flows between our extinct human relatives, and many more. Soon, they will lend their expertise to even more projects, as the RSE group adds 10 new staff positions. This expansion is part of a broader strategic initiative led by the offices of the Provost and the Dean for Research that aims to invest in selected areas of research.

Part of the Princeton Research Computing consortium led by the Princeton Institute for Computational Science & Engineering and OIT Research Computing, Princeton's  Research Software Engineering group aims to help researchers develop professional-quality software that is both efficient and scalable. The group was created in 2016 with just two members and a plan to grow to five, but the team tripled in size in its first five years. Despite the rapid growth, even the team's director, Ian Cosden, never expected that he would be adding so many RSEs at once.

"I can't imagine our good fortune," says Cosden. "This kind of institutional investment in the role is spectacular, it's unique, and I think it will be the envy of many."

Pablo Debenedetti, Princeton's Dean for Research, says that the new hires will help Princeton maintain its position as one of the world's top research institutions. "It's certainly hard to imagine a future of research where higher quality software isn't more essential," he says. "I don't think people fully appreciate how integral to the research enterprise a good collaboration between an RSE and an investigator can be."


A 3D-reconstruction of mouse epithelial cells
A 3D-reconstruction of mouse epithelial cells, assembled from the z-stack of a confocal microscopy image using a data-analysis tool developed by Princeton Research Software Engineer Abhishek Biswas (top right photograph) for research carried out by doctoral candidate Lilia Leybova (top left photograph) in the Devenport Lab. Credit: Abhishek Biswas

Danelle Devenport, an associate professor of molecular biology at Princeton, has worked closely with the RSE group to explore how individual cells organize themselves into tissues, organs, and organ systems.  Working with Abhishek Biswas, an RSE who specializes in solving problems related to molecular biology, her lab developed a 3D model that describes how cells optimize their shapes to facilitate tissue folding.

"The value [RSEs] add to research at Princeton just can’t be understated," Devenport says. "I’m so happy to hear the administration agrees."

The role of research software engineer is relatively new to academia. For many years, those who built software for research projects lacked a defined career role. That began to change in the last decade with the rise of professional societies promoting RSEs as a distinct career path. In recent years, centralized RSE groups have blossomed at a number of universities including Notre Dame, Harvard, MIT, the University of Washington, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But having a centrally funded RSE group the size that Princeton's is expected to be after the expansion, says Cosden, is "unheard of."

"I hope that this continues to be a case study showing how these roles are so important, valued, and necessary in modern research," he says. "I hope that this helps cement long-term RSE career paths and creates a pipeline for RSEs. I hope that this inspires students to pursue the RSE role because it has become a viable long-term career path."

Jeroen Tromp, the director of the Princeton Institute for Computational Science and Engineering, hopes that the group's expansion will help RSEs, many of whom have doctoral degrees, be accepted as scholars. "RSEs need to be respected and appreciated for what they do," he says. "For us, it's extremely important that they get the recognition and appreciation they deserve."