One of the reasons why EPCC set up Women in HPC is because we recognised there was a problem. The problem was the apparent lack of women in the supercomputing community. When my colleagues and I started Women in HPC, our purpose was very clear: to recruit and retain women in the international HPC workforce.
As Women in HPC has developed into an international network many people have questioned if we are taking an effective approach because, rather than focusing on those in the community or about to join it, we should focus our efforts instead on tackling the ‘school-age’ problem: when young girls becoming disinterested and/or dissuaded from pursing a science or technological career path. Although the “school-age” problem is indeed a big source of the lack of women in the community up until now, I have felt it is still worth focusing on the current workforce and those already in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) who may like to consider taking their career forwards into HPC, as we know that not only are women less likely to enter a science related career but they are also more likely to leave a science career. Plenty of other people and groups are targeting young girls and trying to change their perceptions of STEM subjects and careers, but no one else is targeting the women already in HPC.
However, this week things have gone a little different! My week started by helping out with the first ARCHER Champions face to face meeting in Edinburgh. This is a programme led by the ARCHER team at EPCC, which aims to build a group of people in universities around the UK who champion HPC and using HPC resources for research. Their focus will not just be championing ARCHER but championing the idea of using HPC and helping potential users access these resources on the correct scale for their needs, be it a local HPC cluster or ARCHER.
During the first meeting the focus was clear: lets help all academics who could usefully use HPC to have access to it. One of the reasons I personally am excited about it is that I hope it will also help us reach out to female academics to encourage them to use HPC.
I left the Champions meeting part way through to travel to the NEC in Birmingham. I joined the EPCC and ARCHER Outreach team helping to bring supercomputing to all children. I’ll admit that I had an ulterior motive: how many girls could I encourage to stick with their science courses at school, to consider a career in STEM, and to perhaps, just maybe, think that supercomputers were cool enough to work with in a future job. I joined the team after they had finished day one of the Big Bang Fair. With day one down, there were three days to go!
I’ve now just left the NEC and the Big Bang Fair and I can safely say it is the hardest thing I have ever done. Forget simulations, parallel programming or anything else I normally do – spending three days talking to children from 2 years to 18 years, some undergraduates and many parents, has been an incredible but almost overwhelming experience. I am blown away by these young minds, the talent they have and what they can bring to STEM and hopefully supercomputing. I have no idea how many girls I spoke to but having lost my voice it must be hundreds. Time and again they were interested in hearing what I do for a living and why it makes me want to get up every morning. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to interact with these kids.
Over the four days of the Big Bang the EPCC/ARCHER team has directly interacted with over 700 children per day, either to race dinosaurs on Wee ARCHIE, to design and run their own supercomputing centre on the Supercomputing Game or learning about sorting algorithms by sorting mail. We have had many more that we have talked to and discussed careers with, or who have been quietly watching in the background and absorbing what we are saying as their louder friends participate in the games and we expect we have spoken to and interacted with a total of 6000 children.
If I have successfully convinced just one young girl to consider a career in HPC I think the gruelling schedule we’ve had this week has been worth every moment and hopefully my colleagues and I encouraged a whole lot more (and opened the eyes of a few young boys too!). And I have my fingers crossed that as we develop our ARCHER Champions program that we reach out to academics, many of whom I hope will be women, who can make use of ARCHER and HPC for their research.
Toni Collis is the Director and founder of the Women in HPC, as well as an Applications Consultant in HPC Research and Industry at Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC), UK. Within EPCC her role includes providing technical expertise on a range of research projects using HPC in academic software, from engineering to biology. Toni has a PhD in computational condensed matter physics as well as an MSc in HPC and an MPhys in Mathematical Physics.