Dr. Toni Collis
Director and Founder
Women in HPC
Toni Collis is the Director and founder of the Women in HPC (WHPC) network in the UK, as well as an Applications Consultant in HPC Research and Industry at Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC), UK. Within EPCC Toni provides technical expertise on a range of research projects using HPC in academic software, from engineering to biology and teaches on courses in the EPCC MSc in High Performance Computing. Toni is also part of the team that provides technical assistance to the UK national HPC service (ARCHER) community to help users port and optimise codes on ARCHER, and the provision of training for the ARCHER user community. Prior to working at EPCC Toni gained a PhD in computational condensed matter as well as an MSc in HPC and an MPhys in Mathematical Physics. Toni has previously been the Equality and Diversity Coordinator for the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and as WHPC Director is responsible for leading the network as it grows, running events and is also working on research into diversity in the HPC community, how it can be improved and the unique problems faced by this field. She has been on the organizing committee for a variety of workshops and conferences including leading the team for the previous WHPC workshops.
HPCwire: Hi Toni. Congratulations on being selected as an HPCwire 2016 Person to Watch and for all your tremendous accomplishments in 2015. Women in HPC has not only raised awareness of this critical issue, but it’s truly setting itself apart as an organization that is creating positive change in our industry. As Women in HPC was getting started, did you discover any unexpected obstacles in recruiting, engaging and retaining women in HPC? What were they?
Toni Collis: The main reason my colleagues and I set up Women in HPC was to understand why we were the only women in the room when we attended meetings! We discovered one of the main reasons was because of recruitment. This wasn’t unexpected, but what did surprise us is that many people think it is not something the community itself can fix, but is instead a fundamental problem which occurs before women become engaged with technology. This is a key problem we wish to address.
I am often told that women simply do not apply for these type of jobs. This may be true, to an extent, but misses the fact that we don’t necessarily attract women into the community from related fields. More generally, women are more likely than male colleagues to leave STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations. If this is also true specifically in HPC then this is most definitely our problem.
We can improve things by how we write job descriptions and advertise these positions. They need to reach the women that are in the community while also being attractive to women that aren’t already in the community. Once we have women applying, we need to ensure they have as good a chance as men of getting the job. I often talk about identifying where the ‘pipeline’ is leaking. For example, if 10% of your job applicants are female, do you invite 10% to interview, and are 10% then appointed to new posts? Often if people look at a long-term average of their recruitment they find there is one part of their pipeline that is ‘leaky’ and the proportion of women drops. Identifying what this is and why is an important step in recruiting and retaining women in the HPC workforce.
To engage women it is also important to promote family friendly policies. In EPCC at the University of Edinburgh where I work, many of my colleagues started working full time but have subsequently moved to a part time position, or have moved their core working hours to suit their childcare needs. The interesting thing is that these policies were put in place by male colleagues who wanted to be engaged with their families, and this has normalized the process. Because men as well as women are using these policies, it makes it easier and less likely that women stand out.
HPCwire: Clearly we can expect great things from you and Women in HPC on the horizon. Are there any goals you’ve set that we can look forward to in 2016?
We have currently signed Memorandums of Understanding with a number of organizations and are looking to expand this in 2016. We have many organizations interested in signing up during the coming months and our main goal is to convert this into a thriving and diverse group that can help meet the needs of the community. The goal of this program is to enable organizations to setup their own chapters, local networks and run events with the help of Women in HPC and truly tailor the organization to the needs of local groups. If any of your readers are interested in being part of this, we would be delighted to hear from them!
We are also excited about the Women in HPC conference ‘in-collaboration’ status that we are developing this year. EuroMPI 2016 (http://www.eurompi2016.ed.ac.uk/), is the first conference to sign up for this initiative. We really hope that this will have a positive impact on the industry by helping conferences to actively work towards improving diversity among speakers, committees and attendees as well as providing the organizers with help and advice on how this can be.
Both the agreements with organizations and conferences are essential in increasing our knowledge about the HPC community. Gathering information about the true nature of the community and its diversity is a principle that is at the core of what Women in HPC is doing. If we can’t measure the current proportion of women in the community, we won’t know if we are improving things. As part of this we have also launched a community survey (https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/HPC-community) to help us really understand the community, the inherent diversity, where the problems are but also where we can learn best practice from.
In addition we will be continuing our ongoing program of events including workshops, BoFs and career sessions throughout 2016.
HPCwire: What trends in high performance computing do you see as particularly relevant as you look forward to the year ahead?
For three or four years there has been a lot of discussion and research into the next generation of HPC architecture, frequently referred to as ‘exascale’, what it will look like and how it will be programmed. Over the next year I am looking forward to seeing the result of this research and seeing stronger, possibly more controversial, views forming on what will actually run on these machines and how they will be used by the HPC community.
One of the areas that has been under-represented in the exascale debate until recently is I/O and I am looking forward to seeing more discussion and emphasis on what is clearly a very challenging bottleneck.
HPCwire: Outside of the professional sphere, what can you tell us about yourself – personal life, family, background, hobbies, etc.?
Currently I have no free time because Women in HPC is taking off! However, I have a passion for playing the piano and do this in my spare time as much as I can. I also love cooking, particularly experimenting with new flavors, and I look forward to spring in Scotland when I can be outside gardening.
HPCwire: Final question: What can you share about yourself that you think your colleagues would be surprised to learn?
My first degree is in Mathematical Physics but I seriously considered studying music instead. I continue my love of music by playing the piano, but I have in the past decided to learn new instruments on a whim and as a result I also have an electric organ, harp and saxophone at home.
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