Why these women chose a career in HPC

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From left to right: Lesley Shannon, Lucille De Haitre, Gráinne McElroy and Megan Meredith-Lobay

 

The face of advanced research computing is changing. This year’s Compute Canada conference included more female delegates and speakers than ever before.

This increased profile coincided with the June 19 launch of the Canadian chapter of Women in HPC (WHPC) at the iconic Art Gallery of Alberta in the heart of downtown Edmonton. The partnership between Compute Canada and the British organization WHPC aims to increase the representation of women in advanced research computing and help Canada meet the growing demand for skilled workers in HPC and data analytics across many industry sectors.

Dozens of women and men attended networking reception, which kicked off of this year’s CANHEIT |HPSC conference. The WHPC launch also featured lightning talks from female leaders in the Canadian HPC sector.

These are women who didn’t set out for careers in computing. They viewed computing, and IT in general, as boring, male-dominated and with few if any female mentors. Instead, they saw themselves becoming actors, accountants or even archeologists. While their aspirations varied, they did share two important traits: adeptness at mathematics and a motivation to apply their skills to make the world a better place.

Meet a few of the women who have discovered the power of ACR to transform research, business and society.

 

Lucille’s Journey into HPC
Profile: Lucille De Haître
Degree: BA, Economics and Computer Science, Laurentian University
First career choice: Accounting
Today: Regional Sales director, Western Canada, Lenovo Group Ltd.

“I attended Laurentian University and studies in Economics and computer science, first computer languages were on punch cards. Why would I need those skills? I was planning to become an accountant.”

Turns out Lucille had a knack for sales and seeing how IT—particularly HPC—could help companies and public sector organizations become more productive and efficient.

Her career path started with Toshiba of Canada Information Systems division in 1990 as a an Account Executive for federal and corporate clients. That experience led her to take on senior sales positions with several high tech companies, including Lexmark Canada, BEA Systems, SAP Canada and AMD Inc. In 2013 she landed at IBM Canada where her experience in applications and hardware selling were put to use IBM’s high performance serving clients.

“IBM saw my history of application and hardware selling and gave me a chance to be part of their team. It was here that I took care of our friends at Calcul Québec, McGill University and Bombardier and really started to learn about the value of advanced research computing.”

When multinational tech company Lenovo purchased IBM’s System X division in the fall of 2014, Lucille remained with the new company as one of its leading HPC sales experts in North America. Her skills as a team player, team builder and motivator have proven invaluable in developing strategic alliances and managing accounts for the enterprise and public sectors, including provincial and federal governments in eastern Canada. As of July 1, she becomes the regional sales director for western Canada.

“It’s all about the journey. From the day you start university, keep your opportunities and options open. I didn’t expect to end up in high performance computing but that’s where my journey led me and it’s turned out to be a fantastic career.”

 

Megan’s Journey into HPC
Profile: Dr. Megan Meredith-Lobay
Degree: PhD, Archeology, University of Cambridge
First career choice: Medieval Scottish archeology
Today: Digital humanities and social sciences analyst for advanced research computing, University of British Columbia; Member, Women in HPC Canada

“At the end of my PhD I realized I was probably never going to find a job in early Scottish archeology anytime soon. This was big hit for me: how could I not be a total failure after spending 10 years at university studying to be an archeologist? But what I didn’t realize then was that you acquire a whole range of skills during your education that can lead you down some exciting paths. For me, ending up in HPC was very unexpected.”

Megan knew first-hand how increasingly important IT had become to social sciences and humanities research. She made extensive use of a variety of computer resources, including GIS, databases and computer illustration programs, to investigate ritual landscapes in Late Iron Age Scotland.

“I discovered I was able to leverage the skills I had developed in graduate school to take advantage of an opportunity at the University of Alberta in 2008 to manage the research computing department for the Faculty of Arts. It was the first time I had ever heard the term ‘digital humanities’.”

Megan was quickly becoming an expert in this emerging discipline. After U of A, she became program coordinator for the Digital Social Research program at Oxford University where used ICT in managing over 15 social science research nodes and projects across the UK.

By November 2015 she was back in Canada, at UBC as the digital humanities and social sciences analyst for advanced research computing, working with researchers to help them take advantage of advanced computing resources. She also assists other HPC experts, “those more used to supporting science in more traditional fields such as physics, chemistry and life sciences” to understand the unique needs of DH researchers.

“Digital humanities encompass so many different disciplines and domains, from digital musicology to archeology. Therefore you have to be very agile in learning how to support researchers, learning important trends in their fields and understanding their data and methodological concerns.”

Her advice to young women still in university?  “Look at your overall skills, beyond the discipline you’re studying. I’ve been very fortunate in finding a hugely rewarding career path that allows me be help with research areas I didn’t even know existed.”

 

Leslie’s Journey into HPC
Profile: Dr. Lesley Shannon
Degree: PhD, Applied Science, University of Toronto
First career choice: Editor
Today: Associate Professor, School of Engineering Science, Simon Fraser University; NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (BC/Yukon); Faculty advisor, SFU WEST (Women in Engineering, Science and Technology)

“I am the least likely engineer you will probably ever meet. I have no concept of time, space, distance or weight. I don’t play video games and when I started university I didn’t know what a command prompt was.”

With passions for music, history and arts, it’s not surprising that Leslie’s well-intended English teachers steered her towards literature. But her high school guidance councillor also recognized her strengths in math and physics and encouraged her to participate in Shad Valley, a month-long program in which students study science, technology, engineering and math. That experience gave Lesley the confidence she needed to pursue a Bachelor of Electrical and Computing Engineering at the University of New Brunswick, without having ever taken a computer programming class.

Today Leslie is a specialist in heterogeneous and reconfigurable computing, applying non-traditional computing system design for applications in a wide range of areas including robotics, machine learning, aerospace and biomedical systems, multimedia applications, and cloud computing. She also holds the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (BC/Yukon) which operates as Westcoast Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WWEST).

Over the next few years, WWEST will be working with parents and teachers, and post-secondary institutions to change the way we describe computing degree programs and potential careers to students.

“I’m interested in changing how we talk about engineering and computing, and making the language more inclusive for women.” Rather than telling students about how engineering can make a faster processor of a better operating system, she promotes the “cool applications” that show how technology can solve interesting problems that help society.

“I didn’t know, for example, that digital signal processing is the underlying math and technological cornerstone for moves and music—both things I love. I also found out that I could apply what I knew to designing a camera system for kangaroos to figure out why they’re digging up golf courses in Australia. Those are the kinds of real-world applications that will inspire and engage women and other students.”

Read Lesley’s recent essay on language and gender diversity here.

 

Gráinne’s Journey into HPC
Profile: Gráinne McElroy
Degree: MSc in Transportation, Imperial College London
First career choice: Actor
Today: Chief Information Officer, Royal Roads University

“Growing up in Ireland in the 1970s, engineering didn’t strike me as a great option for women. But I had an insightful (female) math teacher who moved me into advanced math in grade 11. I wasn’t happy about it because I thought I was going to study drama and be an actress.”

A year later, that same teacher encouraged Gráinne to attend a conference about engineering, which motivated her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at University College Dublin and then a Master’s in mathematical modeling. Soon after graduating, she was working for an engineering consulting firm modelling transport networks and systems, including the Eurotunnel.

That experience landed her a job at a brewing company as a logistics analyst, and with some nudging from the company’s female CIO, a unplanned shift into IT.

“What I needed was that encouragement from people around me. One of the biggest mistakes we make in society, in general, is assuming that girls can’t do advanced mathematics and women aren’t technical enough.”

“In my case, it wasn’t specifically mathematics or engineering that inspired my career choice. Rather, it was my curiosity about the world around me, what makes it work and how I can improve it.”

Cargill, one of the world’s largest agricultural companies, certainly valued her experience. From humble beginnings as an IT support specialist, Gráinne rapidly moved up the ranks during her 20-year career at the company, including IT security manager, infrastructure hub manager and global account manager. In January 2016, she joined Royal Roads University as its (first?) female CIO. In her spare time, she is helping to develop a digital learning strategy for St. Michael’s University in Victoria BC.

“My opportunities were driven by mentors. If you’re been successful in technology, whether a woman or a man, keep an eye out for the next generation and encourage those seeds to flourish. We don’t get enough of that, particularly when it comes to young women in technology.”

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