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September 2, 2014

Broader Engagement with HPC Matters; Become an SC14-BE Mentor

Elizabeth Leake

The Supercomputing Conference Broader Engagement program (SC-BE) increases conference participation by individuals who are traditionally underrepresented in the high-performance computing (HPC) arena, including women, minorities and people with disabilities.

In a report by Timothy A. Mann and Valerie E. Taylor (Texas A&M) titled “Analysis of the Impact of the Broader Engagement Program on the SC Conference,” the authors explain how the BE experience increases the likelihood that scholars’ submissions (technical program papers, posters, etc.) will be reviewed favorably and they are more likely to participate in conference activities and committees. Ultimately, success in the technical conference arena improves BE scholars’ confidence as they advance in HPC careers. This is good news for HPC industry employers who struggle to build and sustain a diverse workforce.

Unfortunately, as institutional budgets grow leaner, fewer would-be conference-goers are supported by their employers. At the same time, it’s more expensive to host conferences, so there is less money to support auxiliary programs, like BE. This is why the number of BE applications doubled in 2014, but only 40 were funded by the conference (down from 150 in 2011). Fortunately, SC Fundraiser Tony Baylis (Livermore) found external support for an additional 17 scholars, through the generosity of the National Security Agency, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Disney Research.

BE Matters to Corey and Richard

This story began in 2011 when then TeraGrid (precursor to XSEDE) External Relations Coordinator Elizabeth Leake met Corey Henderson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) at the XSEDE/PRACE HPC International Summer School in South Lake Tahoe, California. Leake was a conference facilitator, and Henderson was one of 60 participants from 20 countries. Henderson, like many people who struggle with disability, explained to Leake that he lacked confidence when it came to engaging with others in a crowded conference setting. Leake knew the Supercomputing Conference Broader Engagement Program (SC-BE) could help, and she encouraged Henderson to apply for travel support through the SC-13 BE program.

Henderson was selected by the SC13 BE committee, and the activity spawned a chain-reaction of positive events. Leake and Henderson captured the interest of SC13 BE Deputy Chair Mary Ann Leung (Sustainable Horizons Institute). In 2014, SC14 BE Chair Leung tapped Leake to help lead the BE Program as deputy chair.

When Leung, Leake and the SC14 BE committee realized that more were applying, but fewer would be supported, they began to collect testimonials from past participants in an effort to describe how various aspects the Program had uniquely impacted their lives. Henderson and Barrett shared theirs—the first in a series to follow.

SC13 BE alumnus, Corey Henderson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) 

As a graduate student in plasma physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my research had taken me into the massively-parallel realm and the development of simulation software for Madison’s experimental physics research group. Because nobody in my department had experience with the cyberinfrastructure I hoped to use, I had limited exposure to the resources and professional network I needed. STEM-Trek had begun to bolster my professional network, but I wanted to attend SC to share my work, see what others in my field were developing and learn to use the tools that would help me accomplish my goals.

Professional networking is especially challenging for me because I’m clinically deaf. Videoconferencing and telecommunication are extremely difficult. I applied for the SC13 BE grant because I knew the in-person experience—especially the opportunity to have a long-time attendee serve as my mentor—would help me overcome my trepidation of engaging with the SC hearing community.

“Because I’m deaf, I usually feel isolated when surrounded by unfamiliar faces in large crowds. Dr. Barrett introduced me to others early in the conference, so I was comfortable venturing out on my own later in the week.” — SC13 BE Participant Corey Henderson (UW-Madison).

The SC13 program was excellent! BE provided me with the focus I needed to select the right tools, and to push forward in developing my new parallel simulation code. I’m now eager to share my ideas and give back to the community that welcomed me so heartily. I’m grateful for the experience, and I hope many more people with disabilities can participate in the SC BE program in the future. 

SC13 BE Mentor Richard Barrett (Sandia National Laboratories)

Richard Barrett (left) and Corey Henderson at SC13.

Richard Barrett (left) and Corey Henderson at SC13.

Although I’ve been familiar with the SC-BE program for many years, and had mentored BE students in the past, SC13 was the first year I was fortuitous to be assigned a protégé with a disability since the experience provided valuable insight to their unique challenges.

I understood BE’s primary goal was to boost participants’ confidence by introducing them to new tools, concepts and people. I believed that with knowledge and experience, confidence would automatically follow. Corey made me realize this rule doesn’t always apply to people with disabilities (or others from under-represented groups).

Before he became deaf, Corey had created a successful software development business. When he suddenly lost his hearing, he was no longer able to compete in the fast-paced, and unforgiving commercial sector. He lost the business he had sacrificed much to build, and the experience crushed his confidence—not in his technical aptitude or entrepreneurship, but in his ability to compete in the hearing world.

Traditional methods of delivery assume everyone processes information the same way, and in the same amount of time. Corey quickly drew from my experience to identify shortcuts that allowed him to navigate the conference culture quicker so he could have more time to digest what he had learned, and to establish rapport with the people he met.

I look forward to mentoring many more BE students in the future, and encourage others to participate as mentors. BE is a critical component of the SC conference, and a positive experience for everyone involved.

“Having met Corey, I’m more cognizant of presentation pitfalls. I now take time to make sure everyone understands what I’ve said — especially those who might lack the confidence to raise their hand. I provide my presentation early, so students who struggle with a language barrier or disability have time to review it, in advance.” — SC13 BE Mentor Richard Barrett (Sandia National Laboratories).

Additional testimonials by SC-BE scholars are available online. For more information about the BE program, visit the SC14 BE website.

For more information about STEM-Trek click here:

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