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Get out of your comfort zone

Speed read
  • PEARC conference series brings together experts in research computing
  • The Student Program helps the next generation of scientists enjoy the conference and advance their careers
  • Participants network with peers and receive advice from experienced professionals

Remember how stressful life as a student was? Long days in the classroom bleeding into even longer nights staring at half-remembered notes from wholly-forgotten lectures. It’s a wonder that anyone makes it out of the educational pipeline alive.

The PEARC Student Program brings together participants to learn technical skills, meet mentors, engage with fellow students, and build a strong foundation for their future career.

Which is why it’s important to step back once in a while and breathe—especially for young scientists just starting their careers.

This is why the PEARC (Practice and Experience in Research Computing) Student Program was created. Founded in 2009 and originally including only 8 students, the program blossomed into an operation that hosted 114 attendees at this summer’s PEARC19 conference in Chicago

Semir Sarajlic, a research scientist at Georgia Tech and the Student Program chair, believes a large part of this success comes from the organization’s desire to help students network.

“The Student Program actually focuses on the experience for students to come to a conference and be able to engage with other fellow students,” says Sarajlic. “They also meet mentors who have been in this field for years. These mentors share with the students and shepherd them along the way.” 

<strong>Mentors help students</strong> get out of their comfort zone. They offer advice on everything from which conference sessions to attend to new perspectives on research. Courtesy PEARC19.Many students have come and gone in the ten years since the program’s inception, but plenty come back to help the next generation. Science Node caught up with two previous participants who returned this year as student volunteers — a testament to the program’s lasting impact.

Building a community

One aspect of the Student Program that all participants praise is the significance of the mentor-mentee relationship. Alexa Salsbury, a graduate student at Virginia Tech working on her PhD in biochemistry, spoke about how mentors can help you get out of your comfort zone.

“They match you up with a mentor and you have lunch, coffee, and dinner with them,” says Salsbury. “It’s someone you see throughout the conference that isn’t from your home institution, and it forces you to get out a little bit.”

<strong>It’s all about collaboration.</strong> Participants meet mentors and engage with fellow students. Some students even return to shepherd the next class through the program. Courtesy PEARC19. Mentors also guide students through their PEARC experience. From suggesting which informational sessions a student should attend to explaining complicated topics, the mentors form a foundation upon which a student can build their career.

However, the benefits of the mentor portion of the Student Program don’t end when the conference wraps up. Mohammad Tanash, who is working toward his PhD in computer science at Kansas State University, believes that these relationships even helped improve his research.

“Talking about my research to experts, I got lots of advice,” says Tanash. “I did some research on what they said to me, and I found it very useful and helpful. Even when talking to my advisor about my research, I gave him some ideas that I got from the people at the conference.”

Today’s science and engineering is all about collaboration. Whether it’s working with people from other universities or simply brainstorming with colleagues, modern scientists rely on their peers. The PEARC Student Program emphasizes the importance of working together and considering new perspectives.

A fun-friendly conference

Even though the PEARC Student Program is built around teaching and seeks to improve technological skills, the students we talked to were quick to point out that it’s also a really good time. 

<strong>Not so boring after all.</strong> Student Program participants learn important skills, but don’t neglect to have fun. Courtesy PEARC19.“Having fun is very important, especially for students,” says Tanash. “We are spending lots of time in the lab, studying, and even sometimes not sleeping. Lots of stress. Usually we say, ‘In graduate school, there is no life.’ But actually, there is life. The Student Program is a good opportunity to have fun.”

The PEARC Student Program is an opportunity for students and researchers to push back against some widespread misconceptions: that scientists and technologists are boring.

Everyone thinks that you’re going to come here and be with high-performance computing people, and everyone’s going to be looking at their computers,” says Salsbury. “But that’s not how it is at all. Everyone’s very friendly and talkative!”

As Sarajlic points out, it’s the combination of dedication to research and to fun that makes the PEARC Student Program such a unique and wonderful experience.

“It’s just so nice and heartwarming when you see groups of students huddled together trying to solve a problem, and creatively and collaboratively working together,” says Sarajlic. “That just goes to show that what we’re trying to do over here is actually working.”


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