Building a career in HPC is impossible to do alone
Guest post by: Alisa Alering, Science Node
First published on Science Node on 18th February 2020
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.
What was your path to working with HPC?
I was extremely fortunate to attend the inaugural class of the Science and Mathematics Academy at Aberdeen High School (SMA). Coming from a working-class family, attending the SMA was my first real exposure to scientific and technical careers.
For my senior capstone project, I worked with David Webb from the Army Research Lab on a modeling and simulation effort which inspired me to pursue a degree in computational science at Stockton University (formerly the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey).
At Stockton, I was part of an incredible but small, 5-year BS/MS program with courses in scientific computational modeling and simulation. In 2010, the dual degree program received the Undergraduate Computational Engineering and Science (UCES) Award at the SC10 conference in New Orleans and several students in the program were invited to attend.
SC10 was my first exposure to HPC. It was even my first time on a plane! After walking through the exhibit floor, I was hooked. Back at school, I started taking coursework to learn more about parallelizing scientific code and GPU programming.
Attending the career fair at SC led to two fellowships with the Open Science Data Cloud where I learned that HPC was about more than just fast hardware. These fellowships at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Amsterdam focused on efficient data transfer for scientific computing and data pipelines.
Building a career in HPC is impossible to do alone and I’m extremely grateful to everyone that’s supported me along the way.
Once I finished my Masters at Stockton, I began working at the MITRE Corporation in modeling and simulation where I worked with various projects to run their code on an internal cluster. Eventually, I transitioned to my current role as the service manager for MITRE’s HPC systems in Corporate Operations. Now I oversee the company’s internal HPC systems and the support for over 300 users working on projects sustaining research across MITRE’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs).
What do you like about working with HPC?
There are so many interesting aspects of HPC from networking to scientific computing—and the field is rapidly changing. Technology is racing forward at an incredible pace so there’s always something new to learn. Keeping up with the latest trends and practices in the field is necessary so I’m always learning something new.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in following this path?
One of the biggest challenges I faced was figuring out how to pursue my interests without financial support or a safety net. I was only able to attend college with a scholarship and student loans. I worked during the school year in campus offices, at convenience stores, and waitressing. During breaks, I had multiple jobs to save up money for housing and groceries for future semesters.
At times, it was tempting to just take a full-time job and not have to struggle so much. At one point I did accept a position in IT support; I was miserable from the second I accepted the offer and ended up quitting two weeks later to accept an unpaid research fellowship abroad. Accepting the fellowship meant I had to give up my apartment, quit my jobs, and live off per diem for a month, but I couldn’t stand the thought of not even trying.
Initially, I planned on entering a Ph.D. program after finishing my Masters, but I had received a job offer working on something that interested me with a company that would pay for my Ph.D. over time and I chose to go that route. I was tired of taking on seemingly endless student loans, and I needed to be able to help support my family.
I’ve spent a lot of time struggling to choose between financial stability and continuing to pursue the career I wanted.
I was extremely fortunate to have the options that were available to me. Any sort of emergency or financial setback would have set me on a completely different path. Considering the risk and rewards as well as my own happiness and satisfaction in life helped me navigate these decisions.
Any mentors or role models you would like to thank?
So many people! Growing up, my parents and family always encouraged me to pursue my interests in science, math, technology – that was invaluable in growing my love for problem-solving and computational science.
At the Science and Math Academy (Donna Clem, Sarah Voskul, Mark Evans), I received a great STEM education and was exposed to all sorts of technologies and tools early on. I was also very fortunate to work with my mentor David Webb during my time in this program.
Throughout college, I worked with great role models including Dr. Robert Weigel, Dr. Russell Manson, Dr. Monir Sharobeam, Dr. Chia-Lin Wu, and Dr. Robert Olsen. In my fellowship programs, I was able to work with fantastic academic role models that really inspired me to continue on in research including Dr. Robert Grossman, Dr. Heidi Morgan, Dr. Rosa Filgueira Vicente, Dr. Paul Martin, Dr. Malcolm Atkinson, and Dr. Paola Grosso.
Finally, at various conferences, I’ve had a lot of fantastic role models and mentors that have given me opportunities to work with up and coming students in HPC. I’d like to thank Dr. Jeanine Cook, Yashema Mack, Dr. Mary Ann Leung, Dr. Michela Taufer, and Christine Cuicchi. Building a career in HPC is impossible to do alone and I’m extremely grateful to everyone that’s supported me along the way.
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