Students at SC21: Out in Front, Alongside and Behind the Scenes

By Elizabeth Leake

January 19, 2022

The Supercomputing Conference (SC) is one of the biggest international conferences dedicated to high-performance computing, networking, storage and analysis. SC21 was a true ‘hybrid’ conference, with a total of 380 on-site, streamed and recorded sessions – a logistical feat with separate schedules for each delivery mode, multiple communication platforms and a confluence of technology that was driven by humans who were simultaneously navigating a pandemic. The level of complexity was unprecedented.

A conference that normally draws 10-15,000 attendees requires hundreds of committee members more than a year to plan. In the end, SC21 drew ~3,200 in-person and ~3,300 virtual participants. Not knowing what they would be dealing with from month-to-month, or in the coming year – not to mention how many to plan for – presented a tremendous organizational challenge. Each month, the committee regrouped, reassessed the situation and moved forward. But General Chair Bronis R. de Supinski (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) was undaunted.

Plenary Keynoter Google Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf (left) with SC21 General Chair Bronis R. de Supinski (LLNL). Photo Credit: SC21

Under Student Program (SP) Chair Jay Lofstead’s (Sandia National Laboratory) outstanding leadership, as a percentage of all registrants, the SC21 SP was the largest in history with a cohort of 117. Forty-seven participated in-person, and 70 joined virtually. Most participated in the student volunteer program, and a small number comprised the elite “SCALER” team. Several arrived a week early to work on SCinet. One team competed in the student cluster competition (SCC) in person, and all others joined remotely. All participated in a rich program with time-tested activities designed to immerse students in the SC conference experience. Under the oversight of a stellar SC logistics team, student volunteers and SCALERs ensured that all 380 sessions ran smoothly. 

Those who work with technology can appreciate the magnitude of such a novel undertaking, and the logistics required – behind the scenes – to boldly go where none had gone before. SC21’s complex facilitation challenge required a suite of digital communication tools. Slack established a virtual home base for day-to-day operations, and Discord, a VoIP digital distribution platform, supported additional social interaction.

There was an on-site Student Headquarters (SH) room that served as a base of operations from where all student-related programming and activities were coordinated. Issues reported to students were communicated to logistics and technical teams who kept SCinet and other bits afloat; anything that broke was then quickly repaired. Students going on- or off-shift checked in with SH online or in-person – student volunteers were coordinated from there, as well. SH also served as a home base where students could network among themselves, with committee members and prospective employers. “Coffee with Google” allowed students to practice their elevator pitch in small groups, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise representatives dropped by the SH to shop for summer interns and permanent hires.

From the front, SC21 attendees who weren’t involved with planning or facilitation likely had no idea how the sausage was made, or how involved students were in the process. From all accounts, it was thoroughly enjoyable for both in-person and virtual attendees. The outcome was satisfying in ways well described by STEM-Trek bloggers. As SC veterans and newcomers alike chronicled, SC21 was smaller in scale, but every bit as impressive as pre-pandemic versions – and in different ways. 

For many students – especially undergrads – conference experiences have always been virtual. First-timer Arianna Martin (Southwestern Oklahoma State University) noted, “Before I attended SC21, I loved HPC, but I lacked a community; sometimes I felt discouraged about the career path I wanted to take – how do I become an HPC sysadmin if I’m entirely self-taught? Having been to SC21, I’m now confident that I made the right choice. HPC is a wonderful community, and I’m proud to be part of it.” 

Highlights – Students@SC21: Something for Everyone

SCC@SC21, led by Chair Kathleen Shoga and Vice-Chair Stephanie Brink, both from LLNL, was a semi-hybrid cluster competition. Ten teams worked with cloud providers to complete benchmarks and master real-world scientific applications and workflows – including a reproducibility challenge and a mystery application – all within hardware, time and budget constraints. While one team performed some of their work on-site in St. Louis, the rest were remote. According to Shoga, “teams had to prioritize and work within a budget on Microsoft Azure Cloud, and optimize for hardware provided by Oracle Cloud to complete specified applications per cloud platform.” The Highest Linpack award went to Southern University of Science and Technology, and the top prize for “Overall Winner” went to Tsinghua University (both from China). HPCwire’s Oliver Peckham covered the contest in greater detail. 

Five teams from four countries participated in a new virtual contest, IndySCC, led by Postdoctoral Research Fellow Darshan Sarojini and Ph.D. Candidate Aroua Gharbi (both from Georgia Tech). This contest was designed to be more inclusive in that it accommodates teams that may not be candidates for the primary contest due to a lack of training, budget, ability to travel, etc. The teams accessed the Chameleon cloud-enabled system at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL). They began training in July under the instruction of Kate Keahey (ANL) with an introduction of cloud architecture and continued in August with a lesson on HPC/HPCG benchmarking on various cloud-enabled HPC architecture and compilers. By October they were ready to test their ability to optimize real-world applications. As with the SCC, IndySCC teams participated in a two-day competition where they had to maximize their throughput for real-world applications under a power cap. Congratulations to the winners: First Place – Sun Yat-sen University, China; Second Place – Monash University, Australia, and Third Place – ETH Zurich, Switzerland. 

SC21 also launched an inaugural Data Science Challenge led by Kristen Brown (Intuitive). This contest drew teams from the U.S., Germany and South Africa. Experienced data scientists from a range of government and commercial organizations volunteered to mentor, judge and support the initiative. The competition was entirely virtual and concluded prior to SC21. It was hosted on Oracle Cloud, and was additionally supported by the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). Three of five accepted teams advanced to the final competition phase where they presented their projects, including an analysis of SC papers over the years (Offenburg University), bison habitats in the US (Chaminade University of Honolulu, Washington State University, Vancouver, and Central Texas College), and mental health risk factors in South Africa (University of Johannesburg). External judges scored each presentation. While all projects were excellent, the judges ultimately awarded the top prize to the bison project.

The Advanced Computing for Social Change program (ACSC, formerly known as Computing for Social Change/C4C) was led by Rosalia Gomez (TACC). Using the Bridges-2 supercomputer at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, 11 undergraduate students worked remotely from seven time zones to apply data analysis and computational thinking skills to a collection of data-intensive social challenges. They then created videos to communicate their hypotheses. ACSC welcomes applications from all students, but women, minorities, students from majors outside computer science, and students at the sophomore or junior level are especially encouraged to apply. ACSC@SC21 students’ airfare, lodging, meals and conference registrations were covered by the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), and eight former participants volunteered to serve as mentors. 

The HPC Immersion program, led by Erika Parsons (University of Washington Bothell) and Matthew Fuentes (Everett Community College), is designed to help first-time undergraduate SC student attendees get the most out of the broader conference experience. This year, 17 students participated. Prior to the conference, students had two virtual workshops: “Introduction to HPC and parallel programming” and “Hands-on programming challenges with ORNL’s Summit Supercomputer.”  Then during the conference, each student participated in guided, SC-themed interest groups. Each was assigned a mentor and received a full technical program registration. Additionally, their lodging, meals and incidental costs were supported by SIGHPC (Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on High-Performance Computing).

STEM-Trek Nonprofit supported seven students who participated in the SC21 SP with help from Google, Micron, Dell and SC21. Altogether, 19 STEM-Trekkers attended SC21 – seven virtual, and 12 in-person, including seven students. Most had leadership roles with the conference, student cluster competitions and/or general SP, and several blogged for STEM-Trek

Some participated in STEM-Trek’s second annual ScienceSlam@SC21, which concluded in October so that prize-winnings could be applied toward SC travel. Ramsha Aaisim (Georgia Tech) won first prize for her neural networks slam submission, and Badisa Mosesane (University of Botswana) won second prize with a video submission on the topic of HPC accelerators.

Thank You Students@SC21 SP Leadership

We have covered but a small sampling of the many wonderful SC21 student activities, both officially sponsored by SC, and externally driven. Kudos to SP leadership, including Chair Jay Lofstead (Sandia National Laboratory), SP Deputy Chair Jenett Tillotson (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and Student Volunteers Chair Alana Romanella (Virginia Tech). We must also acknowledge the efforts of many more who contributed; for a complete list, visit the SC21 website

Much SC21 content was recorded and will be available to registrants through the end of January via the SC21 “Hubb.” After that, keynotes, invited talks and panels that were recorded will be available on YouTube once the Hubb closes, and SC21 conference proceedings are available on the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Digital Library. 

For more information, visit the SC21 Student Program website. Read additional coverage of the SC21 conference at HPCwire.

Header image caption: SC21 students, photo courtesy SC21.


About the Author

HPCwire Contributing Editor Elizabeth Leake is a consultant, correspondent and advocate who serves the global high performance computing (HPC) and data science industries. In 2012, she founded STEM-Trek, a global, grassroots nonprofit organization that supports workforce development opportunities for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars from underserved regions and underrepresented groups.

As a program director, Leake has mentored hundreds of early-career professionals who are breaking cultural barriers in an effort to accelerate scientific and engineering discoveries. Her multinational programs have specific themes that resonate with global stakeholders, such as food security data science, blockchain for social good, cybersecurity/risk mitigation, and more. As a conference blogger and communicator, her work drew recognition when STEM-Trek received the 2016 and 2017 HPCwire Editors’ Choice Awards for Workforce Diversity Leadership.

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