I’ve always loved math, computers, and science, and HPC is right at the intersection of these three fields!
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.
Rebecca Hartman-Baker leads the User Engagement Group at NERSC, with the goal of increasing user productivity via advocacy, support, training, and the provisioning of usable computing environments.
Why did you choose a career in HPC?
I’ve always loved math, computers, and science, and HPC is right at the intersection of these three fields.
What excites you about the future of HPC?
I’ve been in the field long enough to see how much progress we’ve made in terms of improving algorithms, creating more accurate models, and having more computing power to perform more and more complex computations. And now we’re seeing an influx of very data-intensive applications that really need to harness this power somehow too. And then, of course, we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law and Dennard scaling. So, I am excited about all the opportunities for developing new algorithms, and making new scientific discoveries, and building machines with new architectures that can somehow support all that.
What did you study? How did you begin your HPC Career?
I actually studied physics as an undergrad at the University of Kentucky. I did an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program one summer where I simulated encrypted optical storage in photon echo memory and thought it was the coolest thing ever. So I decided to do a concentration in Computational Physics, which meant I took a couple of computer science courses. I did really well in my numerical analysis class, and the professor wrote a note on one of the exams he returned to me and asked whether I’d considered graduate school in computer science. I didn’t know you could switch fields until he said that!
I applied for graduate school in computer science and ended up attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has this interdisciplinary Computational Science and Engineering program. During grad school, I wanted to do research on global optimization and inverse and ill-posed problems, but my advisor didn’t have any money for that, so I had to find a non-related assistantship to support myself. At first, I was a TA, which wasn’t bad, but then I found an assistantship at NCSA, working on installing computational chemistry codes for NCSA users. This helped me feel more comfortable with supercomputers and enabled me to actually finish my dissertation: without the power of parallelism, I would still be computing my results almost 15 years later.
After I graduated I worked as a postdoc in the computational math group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then was hired as a computational scientist at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. Oak Ridge was a fantastic place to start my career: there were so many great minds and the top HPC resources in the world, all located in a little town in the foothills of East Tennessee! I had a lot of really good mentorship there which launched me into a very successful career.
What are the top three things you would advise to women considering a career in HPC?
- You have unique skills, knowledge, and experience and you belong in HPC. A lot of times we underestimate our own knowledge and overestimate others’. For example, when I was a postdoc, I felt a little intimidated by this (perfectly nice) guy with a named postdoc because he knew all these math things that I didn’t completely understand. However, he didn’t know anything about parallel programming, which I knew and therefore dismissed as elementary knowledge. When I saw that perspective, it helped me realize that maybe I really do belong here.
- Networking and community are vital to a successful career and your well-being. Getting to know other people has a number of benefits. First, it’s a way to advance in your career by getting your name out there, finding collaborators, possible future places to work, etc. Second, it’s a way to hold on to your sanity! If you are the only person who looks like you in your group at work, that can get pretty tiring. When you network, the law of large numbers says you’ll encounter more people who are like you. Then you’re not alone anymore. You can reach out to them and get opportunities, advice, or even just let off steam when things are stressful. I refer to my network of female colleagues as the “Old Girls’ Club.” The OGC has been a big help to me.
- Try to work with kind people, and remove yourself from bad situations. I had a boss who would say, “Life’s too short to work with a**holes.” Other than the salty language, he was 100% correct. There are lots of very smart people who are also very kind. We don’t need to put up with inappropriate behavior just because someone is a genius. There are over 7 billion people in the world, so there’s got to be someone who is a genius and behaves appropriately. We see the fallout from RMS — how much more advanced could we be in CS if he hadn’t mistreated people and pushed them out of the field? There are similar scandals in every field. You have a right to be safe, and to bring your true self to work without risk of harassment or mistreatment. If you find yourself in a bad situation, figure out how to leave. That network you’ve nurtured, use it to help you come up with an exit plan, and then get out!
What is your most proud accomplishment in the sector to date?
The accomplishments for which I am most proud were recognized in the James Corones award that I won this year. I have always wanted to use my “superpowers” for good. I have worked to make the HPC field a better place for everyone — to encourage those just starting out, and create a more welcoming environment for us all.