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Carolyn Ellis

The Paths to HPC series, presented in collaboration with Women in HPC, showcases the women working in high-performance computing. Our hope is that by highlighting these trailblazers—and the sometimes unique paths they followed into the field—other women will feel inspired to envision themselves in similar roles.

Today we talk with Carolyn Ellis, controlled research program manager, Purdue University.

What was your path to working with HPC?

I’ve always been drawn to exploration and the science that drives it. After the typical ‘I want to be an astronaut’ phase in grade school, high school biology inspired me with the early visualizations of the heart pumping. That’s when I decided that I would love to bring science and technology into educational settings as a career.

<strong>Carolyn Ellis</strong> (l), controlled research program manager at Purdue University with astronaut Mary Ellen Weber, Theresa Mayer, and Preston Smith, on a data center tour with the Weber computing cluster at Purdue. Courtesy Purdue University.  My first position after college graduation was exactly that combination of biology, technology, and producing learning materials for high schoolers on a large NSF grant as a graphic artist. I loved the content, but it was also in this position that I learned I was more talented writing code than I was as an artist.

When the grant ended, my role stepped away from science, but I stayed in the information technology field as a web programmer supporting an event registration site that brought my code directly into compliance of credit card regulations.

During this role I earned a Master of Science in Leadership that formalized the transition my career had been taking from individual contributor to project lead and scrum master. My next formal role was a program/project manager in information security and policy. I enjoyed learning about security systems and the controls necessary for regulated projects.  

My favorite part of supporting HPC researchers is things never get dull and you never know how each new challenge will work itself out.

Joining research computing felt like the perfect marriage of the best of all the key pieces of my interests and experience. I found myself once again surrounded by the science that I had loved so much, but this time, science needed my program leadership and the government regulations compliance experience. My regular responsibilities include leading the regulated research computing ecosystem using my security background and managing sponsored projects developing research tools.

What’s cool about working with HPC?

I love working directly with the researchers who are moving us all forward through their science. Their research inspires me, and I cherish the learning opportunities that the broad diversity of domains presents.

Each new project or collaboration brings fascinating new learning opportunities. My favorite part of supporting HPC researchers is things never get dull and you never know how each new challenge will work itself out.

Working within high-performance computing, I met an astronaut while supporting secured science discoveries in a higher education institution. Here we are, accomplishing quite a bit of what the younger me had hoped to play a role in. To me, that is pretty cool!

No one warns you how steep the learning curve is when you land into the ever-expanding world of research in HPC.

What are some of the challenges you have faced in taking this path?

No one warns you how steep the learning curve is when you land into the ever-expanding world of research in HPC. The immersive language is filled with acronyms, projects, tools, clusters, technologies, institutions, and major players. I felt a bit like a broken record asking “What’s that?” One day early in my adventure with HPC, I collected all the words that I didn’t know from a couple meetings and brought them back to my team. Everyone had a good sense of humor about it and treated it like a Jeopardy game show.

Any mentors you would like to thank?

Carol Song has been an amazing mentor towards writing, leading, and general execution within the sponsored projects space. As a life-long learner, I appreciate her willingness to share her craft with me while helping me grow in this space as well.

Our HPC architect, Mike Shuey, was instrumental in helping scale the steep learning curve that constituted my formal entrance into HPC. He remained patient with me while I drank from the firehose as he tried to impart over a decade’s worth of experience.

Preston Smith, the executive director of Research Computing at Purdue, has consistently pushed me to continue expanding my role. He’s masterful at reading his team and knowing the key times to push harder to overcome a hurdle as well as when to pause and reroute around a blockage.

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