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October 20, 2006

High Performance Woman

Nicole Hemsoth

Maria Eleftheriou is a researcher at the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. For the past few years, she has been working mainly on the Blue Gene project. In particular, she has contributed in the design and the implementation of parallel algorithms, parallel applications, and parallel programming models, and studied the performance of parallel scientific applications for the Blue Gene/L architecture. Another area of interest is large scale simulations addressing questions of biological interest, particularly in the area of protein folding. Dr. Eleftheriou received her master's degree in engineering in 1995 and Ph.D. in theoretical/computational chemistry in 1999 from Brown University. After graduating, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University in the BioMolecular simulation center.

As the only woman on her research team at IBM, we were intrigued about how Eleftheriou faced the challenges of establishing herself in a male-dominated field. HPCwire asked Eleftheriou about the work she does at IBM Research, her thoughts on the role of women in supercomputing, and any advice she might have for other aspiring female technologists.

HPCwire: Can you describe your work and tell us what you enjoy most about it?

Eleftheriou: As one of the original members of the Blue Gene project, I have contributed in a range of areas, from programming models to parallel algorithms, including a distributed memory three dimensional Fast Fourier Transform (3D-FFT) and parallel applications such as Blue Matter, a molecular dynamics application. Small data size 3D FFTs have poor scaling behavior on massively distributed machines, so one of my first projects was the design of a parallel 3D FFT algorithm that scales well to thousand of processors. I am also collaborating on large scale simulation studies of the mechanism behind protein misfolding and amyloid formation for the lysozyme protein using Blue Gene/L. What I like most about my work at IBM is the chance for my research projects to get incorporated into applications.

HPCwire: What inspired you to enter this particular field?

Eleftheriou: I was actually trained in theoretical physical chemistry and then I joined IBM's advanced computing group to work on applications related to my background. What intrigued me about high performance computing was the opportunity to broaden my technical skills and to learn new tools needed to tackle scientific problems using HPC.

HPCwire: Who had a positive influence in your career in the supercomputing field?

Eleftheriou: One of the people who had a positive influence in my career is Francis Allen. Francis, an IBM Fellow, was my mentor while I was making my transition to the supercomputer field and she provided useful advice to strive in this predominantly male field.

HPCwire: Are you involved in any activities to encourage and mentor women?

Eleftheriou: I am on the Watson Women's Network committee at IBM Research, and help organize the committee's activities. Our role is to promote opportunities for women in the workplace, and our activities include professional mentor meetings, organizing talks on a spectrum of topics and organizing roundtable events with executives as well as providing a venue for business topics of interest to women. For instance, at the roundtables, executives describe their career paths and provide useful insights into how to recognize and create opportunities for career advancement. Like other colleagues at IBM Research, I am also involved in undergraduate education, such as giving talks and participating in panels to encourage students in science and engineering to continue their studies in graduate school.

HPCwire: What do you see for the future of women in the supercomputing field?

Eleftheriou: We are a long way from attaining gender equality in the supercomputing field. Women still represent a small fraction of the researchers in this field and this is unlikely to change soon. The number of women trained in science and engineering in general is to blame for the paucity of women in the field. IBM is deeply committed to continuing to address the underlying issues that present barriers to women who choose scientific or engineering career paths. My own personal commitment is in the area of outreach, particularly in high schools.

HPCwire: What is your advice for women who are interested in succeeding in this field?

Eleftheriou: I give them the advice my mentor keeps repeating to me: The best strategy for succeeding in the field, in any field, is to get out of your comfort zone and seek out new challenges.