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 Rebecca Hartman-Baker, user engagement group leader, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), Berkeley Lab.
What was your path to working with HPC?
I majored in physics as an undergraduate. I had a summer internship where I simulated physics on a desktop computer, and I just loved that. In fact, I really loved the computing part of the internship a lot more than what I was using computing for.
For my physics major I did a concentration in computational physics, which meant I took a couple of computer science courses. I did really well in my numerical analysis class—so well that on one of my exams, my professor wrote a note that said "Have you considered grad school in computer science? I'd love to have a grad student like you!" That was really the first time I realized that maybe I could switch fields and focus more on the computation rather than the physics.
I ended up going to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for grad school in computer science, with a focus on numerical methods. My husband was working at the cable company to support us, and this was at the time when cable modems were just coming out. He was on the phone with some early adopter of the cable modem, and they got to chatting. That guy worked at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and told my husband to tell me to apply for a research assistantship there. So I did!
I just think it's amazing how you can take all these little parts and build a physical machine, and then you add the system software that gets all those parts working together...and on top of that you use the math to solve actual science problems.
Working at NCSA gave me a lot of experience and confidence using supercomputers. I ended up using NCSA resources in my dissertation. After I graduated, I did a postdoc in the math group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, then I was hired as staff in the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility. After that I got the opportunity to help build a brand-new supercomputing center from the ground up at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth, Western Australia. After a few years there, I came to NERSC, where I've been for 5 years.
What’s cool about working with HPC?
I just think it's amazing how you can take all these little parts and build a physical machine, and then you add the system software that gets all those parts working together, and on top of that you can use numerical methods to do math, and on top of that you use the math to solve actual science problems. To me, that progression is just incredible.
There are always some doubters or haters because I'm a woman. The trick is to understand that you don't have to tolerate that stuff...You don't have to stay in a workplace that is dysfunctional.
I like my job because I'm helping scientists deliver scientific insights and science-based solutions to the world's most challenging problems. I can't solve those problems myself. Without me, they wouldn't be able to solve those problems either. It requires a team approach, and I like being part of that team.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in taking this path?
There are always some doubters or haters because I'm a woman. That can get demoralizing. The trick is to understand that you don't have to tolerate that stuff and then move on from it, sometimes just psychologically but sometimes physically. You don't have to stay in a workplace that is dysfunctional. You don't have to prove yourself to someone who is determined not to see your accomplishments. It's a big world out there with plenty of places for you to make your mark.
Any mentors you would like to thank?
There are so many! The professor I talked about above is Greg Wasilkowski at the University of Kentucky. My PhD adviser, Mike Heath, was so supportive all through my difficult grad-school journey. I strive to be as accepting and level-headed as he was for me. Today I am a manager and I strive to be like the late, great Ricky Kendall, who really nurtured and developed me when I worked for him at the OLCF.
Another person I really admire and who inspires me to be comfortable in my own skin is Women in HPC's Toni Collis, who is just so authentic and so true to life. And I have a special place in my heart for all the other women in this field, many of whom I know well, and who are all great resources for advice, favors, and commiseration.