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 Sandra Gesing, associate research professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and computational scientist at the Center for Research Computing, University of Notre Dame. She is also co-chair of the PEARC20 conference.
What was your path to working with HPC?
My journey to HPC started with my interest in programming during high school, which led me to complete an apprenticeship in computer science. I enjoyed working in programming and distributed computing as an administrator, system developer, and head of a systems programming group in industry for 12 years.
HPC was also part of this work, and for the last three of those 12 years, I worked on an IBM Z mainframe as well as Linux networks. I still appreciate IBM's humor in giving this mainframe the nickname “T-Rex,” reacting to the prediction that mainframes were dead and distributed and grid computing were the future. Mainframes are still going strong for banks and insurance companies over a decade later while grid computing has vanished into cloud computing.
During my time in industry I realized that I would like to delve deeper into computer science. Thus, I did my German diploma (equivalent to a Master’s degree) via extramural studies. I was thrilled about the "half-time" experience with academia and decided to do my PhD full-time in a bioinformatics group.
I was attracted by being able to support important and challenging topics such as drug design and disease eradication and that my skills could contribute to such topics without being an expert in these areas. Bioinformatic simulations are often very compute intensive, and I started to work on science gateways to enhance the accessibility and usability of complex research infrastructures, especially HPC infrastructures, for domain researchers.
What’s cool about working with HPC?
I especially like interdisciplinary work and creating science gateways that enable researchers to focus on their research topics. There are so many different projects and areas that benefit or could benefit from HPC with a plethora of interesting topics.
While I cannot become an expert in [every] topic, I can support them. There are still underserved areas such as social sciences and humanities that need more attention and solutions.
Besides the manifold topics, it’s also an area that is interesting because of its different hardware developments and the need for more flexible and usable programming technologies. While HPC facilitation and research software has become increasingly important for research, the acknowledgement of its importance is not yet following the same pace in academia. Thus, I'm passionate about supporting career paths for HPC facilitators and research software engineers and contributing to a needed cultural change in academia that incentivizes people to be in this line of work.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in taking this path?
I think the part that makes my work interesting and the topics I like to tackle are inherently also a bit challenging. The interdisciplinary work is the part I like a lot—and it is the part that is often also the most challenging. It starts with understanding the research topic to a sufficient depth that I can be helpful with the design of a science gateway or software that hits exactly the pain points of the researchers and enhances their computational methods.
I listen closely to the researchers—I think—and I try to avoid speaking in technical slang. I’m not always successful because some words have different meanings in different contexts, even though we think we understand each other well. Communication across domains can be challenging. I am passionate about tackling cultural change in academia. There have been a couple of success stories on the way, but it’s a long road and many different approaches are needed to be successful.
Any mentors you would like to thank?
Quite a few colleagues have supported and influenced me. My experience is that quite often superstars in the field are the ones who are modest and good listeners and thus, create an excellent welcoming environment that is so important, especially for interdisciplinary work. I luckily work in an environment that supports novel approaches and the lessons learned from it.
I would like to thank one of my colleagues by name, Gwen Jacobs, for being such a patient, impressive leader in this space. Good leadership reveals itself when there is a crisis. For example, Gwen has been fantastic and very informed when dealing with all the hurdles and decisions required to move a large conference such as PEARC20 from in-person to virtual and still exhibit good humor. Kudos to Gwen!