Why I Brought an All-Female Team to the Student Cluster Competition at ISC16

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By Rebecca Hartman-Baker, Acting Leader of User-Engagement Group, NERSC, Berkeley Lab

I recently gained some notoriety by coaching a team of six high-school and college-age women to compete in the Student Cluster Competition (SCC) at ISC. It was the first-ever male-free team in the history of the ISC competition.

The SCC is a friendly yet spirited contest in which teams of six students who have not yet earned a Bachelor’s degree run real scientific applications on small supercomputing clusters that they have designed and built. Teams must stay within a 3000 W power envelope at all times, and the cluster must contain only parts that are available for purchase at the time of the competition. It’s a great opportunity for young people, most of whom have never had any experience in HPC before they start training, to learn about our field and experience the real-life highs and lows of operating and using a supercomputer.

The experience not only gives students the opportunity to learn about our field, but it also gives prospective employers a chance to see potential future employees in action. Many of the students leave the competition with career opportunities that they never even knew existed a year ago. I used to work with several cluster-competition alumni at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. An alumnus of one of my Australian teams got a great job working for a local mining company doing system administration on their supercomputer. Still others pursued more advanced study after the competition, and incorporated HPC into their PhDs.

So, it’s a great experience for students to learn about HPC and possibly pursue employment and/or advanced degrees in the area. This is the third team I’ve coached (but the first for NERSC and also for the competition at ISC). My first team had one female member; I doubled that with the second. Interestingly, no one ever questioned the gender balance of those teams, while this time, I got a lot of unsolicited feedback on the composition of my team.

Why did I decide to have a team of six women?

The short answer: Because they were the best choice.

A slightly longer, but still short, answer: Because our selection criterion was to pick the best eligible and available students from the pool of last summer’s NERSC interns, and when we did that, they all turned out to be all women.

In fact, there was a male student who was my top pick. He had a lot of experience and would have made a great team sysadmin, but was unfortunately unavailable.

In the end, we identified six of the top interns who were eligible, and contacted them to gauge their interest. Five ended up joining the team. We filled the last slot by recruiting a friend of one of the team members, who is an intern this summer for NERSC.

I find it sad but not entirely surprising that people jumped to a variety of other conclusions about my team: that intuitively, it seemed too unlikely that the most qualified people would turn out to be an all-female group. What does it say about society’s perception of women that so many people found it more likely that I was jonesing for attention or somehow angry at men – not that these six young people were my cluster-competition dream team?

A dream team they were! These are six highly intelligent, self-motivated young people. We conducted team training remotely, because they were scattered all across the continent. We had a weekly teleconference and I gave them assignments to do to train up, but otherwise it was entirely up to them to prepare.

The five former interns had become fast friends over the summer, and were quick to include the sixth team member. Upon this basis of trust they built a Team with a capital T – a group of people linked in a common purpose, generating synergy and allowing each member to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They created an environment in which it was safe for everyone to ask “stupid” questions and take risks.

There’s something to be said for all-female spaces. We as girls are taught before we are knee-high special skills and relationship patterns that aren’t taught to boys. We are taught to share with others, to watch out for people who lag behind, and to lend a hand if they need help. We are taught to step up to the plate if nobody else is willing to take on a less desirable task. We are taught to pay attention to the emotions of others, and see if we can be of help and service if someone is upset, to smooth over conflicts.

These are all useful group-building skills that often get lost in mixed groups, because we’re also taught from a young age that we should defer to men. Even if no one tells us explicitly, we have merely to read almost any book or tune in to nearly any television show or movie to see our secondary place in society. If the visual is not enough, we hear the same message in popular music as well – women are validated by men’s approval, and men’s experiences and lives take precedence over ours.

In situations where men dominate, the careful balance we have worked so hard to cultivate is upturned by a group of people who don’t share the same priorities. Our generosity and thoughtfulness is trod upon by the men who aggressively claim the limelight. We pick up the leftover tasks that are not glamorous enough for them. Our ability to smooth over conflicts is taken to its logical limit and erases our voice.

If you take the men out of the equation – in a small space such as a student cluster competition team – then the balance by necessity goes to the women. They begin to fill this space, and it is a beautiful sight to behold. They find the solutions to their own problems, take risks you don’t normally see them take, and really begin to take ownership of their lives. They become self-rescuing princesses, in an uncharted story of self-agency without a predictable ending.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a comfortable team, as in, I could ask any question….” This is what one of my team members said at the end of our time together in Frankfurt. (I agree with her assessment — from my perspective as team coach, this team was the easiest to mentor.) It was the greatest feeling to know that I’d played a role in giving her this confidence-building experience. We may not have won any awards in the competition, but thanks to this experience I’m confident that all seven of us are winning at life.

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  • Rebecca Hartman-Baker is the acting leader of the User Engagement Group at NERSC at Berkeley Lab. She’s a computational scientist with expertise in the development of scalable numerical algorithms for the petascale and beyond. She began her career at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where for her postdoctoral work on the MADNESS computational chemistry framework she was on the R&D100 award winning team. As a scientific computing liaison in the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, she worked with a wide variety of scientific fields, including chemistry, nuclear physics, and logistics, and led the liaison task in the scientific computing group. After a few years at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Australia, she joined NERSC in 2015. Rebecca earned a PhD in computer science, with a certificate in computational science and engineering, from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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