Q&A with SC20 Chair Christine Cuicchi: HPCwire 2020 Person to Watch

By Tiffany Trader

November 12, 2020

In the following Q&A, Christine Cuicchi, SC20 Conference General Chair, discusses this year’s unifying theme (More Than HPC, see Nov. 16 plenary details), expounds on HPC trends, and walks us through the activities of her “day job” as director of the Navy DoD Supercomputing Resource Center. This featured interview – conducted at the beginning of the year before SC20’s transition to a digital event – is reprinted from our HPCwire 2020 People to Watch program as part of our SC20 coverage.

HPCwire: Hi Christine, congratulations on your selection as a 2020 HPCwire Person to Watch and, more importantly, as General Chair for SC20. Can you talk about your experience with the conference, where it’s been, and where you see it going?

Being a part of the SC planning committee has been an honor of mine for most of the past 20 years, starting with SC2001. Most of my SC positions have paralleled my career with the DoD—I volunteered largely in the technical program side for the first several years and then switched over to the more operational positions including infrastructure, communications, and exhibits. As we approach the conference’s 32nd year, the SC planning committee continues to focus on building a strong, relevant technical program, a vibrant exhibitor space, and a Students@SC program that will reach out to not only established HPC curricula but to the local Atlanta educational community as well. Our attendees often tell us that SC is the premier conference for networking with their peers in the HPC and HPC-related communities, and we are striving to attract a broad spectrum of professionals and students to the conference to ensure that there are quality opportunities to collaborate. Oh, and we plan to have food trucks nearby, too. Collaborating is hard work!

HPCwire: We’ve seen that the theme for SC20 is “More Than HPC.” Why was this theme was chosen and what do you hope to inspire in the community?

For SC20 we want to focus on not just high performance computing itself but what drives it—the problems we’re trying to solve, the questions we’re hoping to answer, and the people and underpinnings that make every supercomputer accessible. We’re renewing a focus on the State of the Practice to give those who work behind the scenes the chance to share their wealth of knowledge with three full days of dedicated State of the Practice sessions. We’re also launching two initiatives to expose students to HPC and include them in the conference: the first is the HPC Immersion program which will provide a chance for conference engagement and involvement in HPC and HPC-related communities to undergraduate students who are traditionally underrepresented in these fields. The second is the HPC in the City program, which will engage leaders, decision-makers, educators, and students in the greater Atlanta area to work together and combine our collective talents and HPC capabilities to address problems that are relevant to the local community. More than HPC is meant to inspire cross-collaboration among all the communities involved in supercomputing, and remind us that our many viewpoints can combine to create some terrific advancements for the world around us.

HPCwire: Can you give us a peek into your world as the Navy DoD Supercomputing Resource Center Director and what your role entails? How has the landscape changed for HPC since you’ve been there?

While I first began working in the DoD High Performance Computing Modernization Program (HPCMP) as a computational engineer in 1997, in 2013 I decided to take a leap into the operational and managerial side of the program as the HPCMP’s Associate Director for HPC Centers. In that role I led 350 people—none of whom worked directly for me—in the management, budgeting, and operation of five DoD Supercomputing Resource Centers (DSRCs) across the country. It was great preparation for the role of SC General Chair, in which I lead a team of over 600 people—none of whom work directly for me, either! In early 2019 I was able to come back to my ‘home’ center at the Navy DSRC as the director. This role has afforded me a bit more time to focus on strategic planning for the DSRC, which is challenging in the landscape of constrained budgets and merging US-based HPC vendors. I’m pleased to report that our most recent strategic decision landed us a Cray Shasta that at 290,304 cores and 12.8 theoretical peak PFLOPs will be the largest system the HPCMP has procured to date, and the first HPCMP system to best the 10 PFLOP threshold. None of this is possible without the extraordinary team at the Navy DSRC, whom I’m honored to lead.

HPCwire: Generally speaking, what trends and/or technologies in high-performance computing do you see as particularly relevant for the next five years? Also, what’s your take on near-term prospects for quantum computing and neuromorphic technologies?

It seems that HPC is always on the edge of an electrifying advancement, but we will soon enter a truly new era of computing. Exascale systems will arrive in the next year or two, opening the door for many innovations in materials science, precision medicine, additive manufacturing, and weather prediction, just to name a few. While exciting, we will also experience a notable increase in complexity, and more than a few anxious pangs as we consider industry’s plans to build the next era of systems. The eventual end of Silicon CMOS shrinking has prompted some to suggest quantum and neuromorphic computing as a logical next step. These technologies, however, only address a narrow set of problems, particularly over the near-term.

HPCwire: What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM and what advice would you give to young people wishing to follow in your footsteps?

The short story is that I was exposed to STEM fields very early. The longer story is that my parents taught physics, computer science, and gifted classes in public school after both were in the co-op program with NASA during the moonshot; my father worked on the space shuttle structure and my mother was a computer programmer. In 1984 she bought us an Apple IIe and started teaching my brother and me how to program at the ages of 9 and 12, and well, here we are. For young people who are interested in STEM today, the standard advice about building a good, strong base of critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities applies. But I most strongly advocate for learning how to communicate effectively to audiences of all types, because the better you are able to advocate for your project, your knowledge, and your abilities, the better chance you have of making a meaningful impact in your field.

HPCwire: Outside of the professional sphere, what can you tell us about yourself – personal life, family, background, hobbies, etc.? Is there anything about you your colleagues might be surprised to learn?

I grew up in an Army family and have lived in Mississippi most of my life, spending the last twenty years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Most colleagues would probably be surprised to know that I enjoy Cajun, Zydeco, and West Coast Swing dancing—they already know that I love a good Mardi Gras parade and am a huge Mississippi State University sports fan. I also enjoy being the wacky aunt to my two darling nephews and regaling friends with stories of the often colorful characters and situations I encounter while traveling.

HPCwire: More on Christine

Christine Cuicchi is director of the Navy Department of Defense Supercomputing Resource Center (Navy DSRC), operated by the Commander, Naval Oceanography and Meteorology Command (CNMOC) on behalf of the DoD High Performance Computing Modernization Program (DoD HPCMP). She leads the DSRC in the operation of $55M of supercomputing capability and the attendant storage, networks, and computational expertise which are available to over 2,500 DoD RDT&E, S&T, and acquisition professionals. Prior to her current position, Cuicchi was the Associate Director for HPC Centers for the DoD HPCMP, responsible for managing five DSRCs with an annual RDT&E budget of $100M and a government and contractor workforce composed of approximately 350 people. She was also responsible for an annual HPC system acquisition process of $50-60M. Cuicchi received both her bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and her master’s degree in Computational Engineering from Mississippi State University. In 2017 she received the U.S. Department of the Navy’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award.

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