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Jackie Milhans

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 Jackie Milhans, manager of computing and data support services, Northwestern University.

What was your path to working with HPC?

I’m about to get nerdy here, so bear with me. Armed with a B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering with a minor in Computer Science, I knew I enjoyed learning how materials’ microstructures can affect observed or experienced behavior of a material. I also loved math and programming—and still do when I get to do it.

<strong>Jackie Milhans</strong> is manager of computing and data support services at Northwestern University.I pursued a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering at Georgia Tech. I had previously had a great experience there during an REU program, and a handful of the faculty expressed interest in me joining their lab. It was this welcome, as well as the collegiality I saw among faculty, that led me to choose Georgia Tech. As an added bonus, I had the opportunity to do portions of my PhD in France at Ecole des Mines. That international experience was eye-opening. I will be forever grateful for the perspectives I heard while in France and the experience of living in a culture that I didn’t grow up in.

My postdoc research at Los Alamos National Laboratory exposed me to HPC, where I performed the largest scale molecular dynamics simulations that my research group was aware of at the time. It was incredible what you could do on these DOE computers, opening new doors to what was possible to understand in materials’ behavior due to their micro- or nano-structures.

When it was time to decide what to do next, I knew that I did not enjoy writing publications. As I was looking for jobs, a recruiter reached out to me with an opportunity at Northwestern University to help researchers utilize HPC. I knew Linux, I could program, and I ran MPI simulations that a lot of people at Northwestern were doing too, but the major skill that they were seeking was the ability to communicate with people about HPC. I was also eager to get back to a more urban and diverse geographic location. I took the job because of the people I met during the interview.

I’ve been at Northwestern for almost 7 years now, and have moved up from a Senior Computational Specialist, then Lead Computational Specialist, and finally to manager of the researcher-facing functions. I’ve served as a manager for over 4 years now and enjoy working with people and developing staff.

What’s cool about working with HPC?

HPC clusters enable us to investigate and explore areas of science that we would not otherwise be able to do. It’s impactful work to be able to enable new scientific discoveries. Developing new materials, advances in medicine, understanding the galaxies, I could go on and on.

The other interesting thing about HPC is that most people don’t learn HPC skills until they hit grad school or later. It allows for a more even playing field in terms of technical starting points.

More important is why I’ve stayed in HPC. I have met great people who have helped me grow, have become friends, and provided me with opportunities.

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

The cultural challenges in the HPC community continue to be difficult to overcome. I identify as a mixed-race, Korean-American woman in her mid-30s, and I can stick out in a crowd of HPC folks. Our field generally lacks diversity. However, it is essential that we embrace diverse backgrounds and people into the world of HPC. As technology changes and a new wave of research areas have adopted HPC resources, we need to get new skills and perspectives into the HPC community.

It is essential that we embrace diverse backgrounds and people into the world of HPC.

Because we lack diversity, it can be difficult to see problems in our culture that may be unwelcoming to members of marginalized groups (women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, etc.) and younger professionals. Unfortunately, I’ve had experiences where I felt underestimated as someone younger and female, such as people often being surprised that I’m the manager of my team or that I have valuable things to add to a conversation.

I have also experienced discrimination and harassment as a woman in HPC more times that I can count, especially when I was new to the field. I once boarded a shuttle bus for an HPC conference, only to be told by the driver that the health conference is the other bus. I have felt unsafe in my engineering classes as an undergrad, at conferences, in the workplace, and at networking events. I’ve overcome this by building my network, finding allies, building friendships, and taking on leadership positions.

I am worried that other young women are being scared off in the field before they can even plant their feet.

What gives me hope is that an increasing number of people in the HPC community are educating themselves and taking action in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues and practices. I would like to see more of the HPC community become invested in taking action against issues in our workplaces and in our organizations like these leaders and allies. There is so much talent to tap and welcome into our field.

We have a lot of work to do to make HPC a more welcoming and inclusive environment where many more can thrive. That means listening to new perspectives and valuing them.

Any mentors you would like to thank? 

So many mentors, friends, and role models have helped me along the way. I have never had an official mentor-protégé relationship, but I drew from my network. I will mention a few here:

Thanks to Joe Paris, my boss of the last 7 years, who sees potential and skills in me, provides me with opportunities, and helps me tackle challenges by talking through them with me. Hamid Garmestani, my PhD advisor, always had complete confidence I could figure things out. Tina Pappas of Rutgers University inspired me with her bright ideas, results, and continued support. Allison Porterfield of Northwestern, who has taught me so much and with whom I’ve been able to take on new challenges. John O’Brien, and many others in EDUCAUSE, provided me with growth opportunities and conversations.

There are also a number of women who have been sounding boards to me and role models in the HPC community and beyond. When I found the community of women in tech, it was a turning point in my career.

Thanks to my AMAZING team in Research Computing Services at Northwestern, who inspire me with their brilliance, kindness, and passion for doing better every day.

There are so many others who have made an impact on my life, including several who I haven’t met at all. Thank you for the trailblazing, hard work, collegiality, support, kind words, and conversations.

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