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Marie-Christine Sawley

Our Paths to HPC series, presented in collaboration with Women in HPC, showcases 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 Marie-Christine Sawley, Intel Extreme Computing Organization, EU Exalab Director, DCG.

What was your path to working with HPC?

As with many careers, mine was not really planned from the beginning. In high school, I had little talent for anything except math, physics, and languages; all the rest was of little interest to me. I had told my parents when I was around 8 that I wanted to be an engineer when grown up—they thought this was unusual but did nothing to change my mind. 

<strong>Marie-Christine Sawley</strong> is director of the Exascale Lab at Intel.However, I probably had a good measure of self-confidence in those days, as there was more than one teacher who thought to do well by trying to discourage girls to go into science and technology. I stuck to my choice, and joined EPFL in Lausanne, where I graduated as an engineer in physics, then a PhD in plasma physics. At the time, the Plasma Physics Centre in Lausanne was already a highly renowned institute with worldwide collaborations. 

I have been extremely lucky to be educated in such a compelling environment, where PhD students were trained to develop leading-edge numerical methods to model the very hot, turbulent, magnetically confined plasma inside a tokamak, using the most advanced supercomputers of the time. The PhD marked the end of the education part of my life, and time to move on to a career for which I had little idea of what might come.

I realized that the whole domain of modelling science using numerical methods could be applied to many other domains: aeronautics, chemistry, fluid-structure interaction, hydrodynamics, etc. This is how I arrived at HPC. 

What’s cool about working with HPC?

HPC is at the intersection of many different disciplines: domain sciences, mathematics, computer science, computer architecture—even the technical infrastructure can be challenging. Its purpose fascinated me: exploring the frontiers of science and technology, discovering new phenomena; validating theories and intuitions; designing airplanes, trains, and boats; modelling earthquakes, new drugs, and new therapeutics. In the 1990s a lot of new opportunities opened up. I chose to go into HPC technology management and never regretted it.

While working for almost 30 years in the domain, I have had many opportunities to observe how much the community around computational sciences and HPC is global and closely knit.

The career perspectives are very appealing as there are virtually no limitations when choosing the next path.

Now, more so than ever, research and industry are looking for new talents. The intertwining of AI, HPC, and data analytics, fueled by the enhanced capacities of the technology, have expanded opportunities further than what we imagined when we were young.

I think not enough of my children’s generation are interested in science and technology, which is a pity.

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

As I mentioned earlier, I was warned a number of times about the fact that science or engineering may be too demanding for a girl, especially if she wanted to have a family – nobody would dare say such things now! However, building one’s career can be demanding, both for men and women, as difficulties may pop up in any professional path.

I always chose to find a way out from challenges from the top than from the basement, and to re-energize with enthusiasm and passion for the new environment.

I did so without analyzing too much whether challenges came because of my gender; some may have, the majority did not. I did not pay much attention to the gender reason as I thought such reactions were the sign of limited intelligence. I was probably overly optimistic. 

Are there any mentors or role models you would like to thank?

I was truly blessed in my career at EPFL, The University of Sydney, ETH Zurich, and Intel to cross the paths of many incredibly gifted, modest, and generous people. It would take too long to mention them all, but let me share with you one observation: the more a person is self-obsessed with his or her own success, the less credible or interesting he or she becomes.

Real leaders are never self-defined, they are recognized as such by their peers. My mentors helped me to create a strong network. Now that I can give back, I am trying, as much as I can when asked, to help young professionals find their way in the career. 

Still, if I had to cite one person, it would be my high school math teacher: an older, modest, and incredibly clear-minded man called Signor Carnevali. 

I remember him for 3 things:

  • Before class, he would put white oversleeves on his black jacket to protect it from the white chalk spreading everywhere, a delightful sight that made us giggle.
  • He gave the same attention to each of the 18 pupils he had for two years, boys and girls alike, no distinction.
  • He always insisted that getting the reasoning right was more important than getting the right answer: The “right answer” might be obtained by pure chance, but if your reasoning was right, you always found the correct answer!

My fellow students and I never forgot him. He was the true inspirer of a number of careers, I am sure.

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