When marine biology means too much chemistry, a first-generation college student falls in love with computer programming.
Guest post by: Alisa Alering, Science Node
First published on Science Node on 3rd September 2019
Our new series, Paths to HPC, showcases women working in high-performance computing. Our hope is that by highlighting these trailblazers—and the sometimes unique paths they followed into the field—other women will feel inspired to envision themselves in similar roles.
Today we talk with Maytal Dahan, director of Advanced Computing Interfaces (ACI) at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin.
What was your path to working with HPC?
My path into HPC and computer science is what I like to call a happy accident. Being the first in my family to attend college, I didn’t have a good understanding of what I wanted to be or what I was really interested in.
I had supportive parents but they didn’t grow up in this country and didn’t really know how college worked. I never went on college tours, I didn’t have parents who understood English well enough to proof my college essays.
But I worked hard, I tried my best, I leaned on my friends and thankfully had a group of peers that encouraged and supported me. I was excited and terrified going to college but I was also driven to succeed and pave a path that hadn’t been done before.
I loved science and animals so my initial goal was to be a marine biologist. I wanted to fulfill that goal of every animal-loving kid and have a career of swimming with the whales. But the reality of that was lots and lots of chemistry classes. I was good at them but I didn’t love it so late in my freshman year I dropped a chemistry class and picked an Intro to Java class because it was something totally new to me.
From day one I fell in love with computer programming, I loved the class and loved the idea of learning how things work and building a program out of nothing. I switched my major to Computer Science and found an ally in a fellow CS woman (it was easy to pick her out, in many of our classes we were the few women in there).
I worked throughout college, from a teaching assistant for data structures to getting an internship at the San Diego Supercomputer Center and from there went on to work full time and eventually moved to TACC, growing from a software developer on projects to a software engineer leading technical projects, to manager, and now director.
I love what I do, and I’m so lucky to get to work with a great team to help advance research and create software and services that are used in a variety of projects.
What’s cool about working with HPC?
TACC’s mission is “powering discoveries that change the world.” I truly believe that is what makes HPC so special. The problems are always changing, the research and technology solutions are always pushing the envelope. It creates a dynamic and exciting environment.
As director of ACI, I get to work with two dynamic teams – Web and Mobile Applications and Cloud and Interactive Computing – where we lead the strategy for science gateways, science as a service, and cloud services at TACC. One of the exciting things about this field is we get to work with so many diverse scientific domains – life sciences, disaster recovery, medicine, climate science – and help find solutions to tackle their complex scientific needs at every layer from the user interface, APIs, to backend services, and cloud resources.
As a co-PI for the Science Gateways Community Institute (SGCI) we get to influence and impact the direction and promotion of science gateways. Through this work we help enable researchers and scientists by creating integrated environments for solving their disciplinary problems. I live in Los Angeles, so earthquake research holds a special place in my heart (and in the safety of my city)—watching researchers on the ground at the recent Ridgecrest earthquakes sharing their data on the DesignSafe science gateway was inspiring.
What are some of the challenges you have faced along this path?
I think the typical challenges that you hear so often – imposter syndrome, struggling with feeling like you belong and that you deserve to be here. I’ve had really great mentors and support throughout my journey—I think that is so very important.
I also think in the HPC space, being a software engineer is also a unicorn of sorts. We usually aren’t your typical PhD researchers, we are software engineers helping build the tools and services to support and enable complex research. I think understanding and embracing our role in the HPC environment has become more valuable and appreciated over the past 15 years.
Any mentors or role models you would like to thank?
I’ve been lucky, I’ve had a lot of really great role models. My fellow classmate (now kick-ass computer science professor) Dr. Catherine Olschenowsky was definitely the key to my first steps of success in HPC.
Without any role models to help me understand how best to take advantage of the college experience and help me believe in myself, she played a key role. When we had a new project or a difficult class, she helped set the bar for success and taught me that I can believe in myself and succeed. We never let each other fail and always helped each other grow to reach our fullest potential.
But throughout my career I’ve had amazing colleagues and co-workers who create an environment that you are excited to come to every day, are eager to succeed and work hard and aren’t afraid to try new things and potentially fail.
About the author: Alisa Alering, Managing Editor, Science Node
Originally trained as a librarian, Alisa loves tracking down the science behind her stories and learning something new about technology every day. With previous experience as a freelance writer and photo editor, she has held positions at Indiana University Press, PBS, and Google and earned degrees from Penn State and Indiana University. She particularly enjoys writing about women and diversity in technology, digital humanities, and the intersection of science and the natural world.
About Science Node
Science Node is an online magazine that connects the global research community, exploring how tech works and showing why it matters to our everyday lives. sciencenode.org