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Sara Willis

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 Sara Willis, research computing specialist at the University of Arizona.

What was your path to working with HPC?

My path certainly hasn’t been a direct one. I’ve always been drawn to analytical disciplines, specifically science, though working in any capacity with computers was never on my radar.

<strong>Sara Willis</strong> is a research computing specialist at the University of Arizona.As for my academic journey, it hasn’t necessarily been a traditional one. For a variety of reasons I was a very poor high school student. I lost my interest in science, underperformed academically, and did not apply to college. Two years after graduation, an abrupt series of life events triggered my eventual return to school and I enrolled at a community college where I tested into the most basic algebra class (which I had no intention of taking).

Shortly after, I did an odd about-face and decided to major in physics. Instead of taking no math, I took every class the school offered, skipping three levels along the way—no one was more surprised than I was! I wound up finishing my degree at the University of Arizona with a double major in both math and physics.

My relationship with analytical subjects for a long time was framed in reference to my male peers, as though any interest I had was not my own.

During my degree program, and after, I worked in scientific research as a bioinformatician. This made heavy use of programming as I constructed databases and pipelines to store, process, and analyze large quantities of genetic data. The more I became involved in the work, the more my interest shifted toward working in support of research on the programming end of things. This eventually led me to my current position as a consultant for the University of Arizona’s high-performance computing.

What's cool about working with HPC?

I love my job. I have a background and interest in both science and programming, so it’s great to be at the convergence of the two. A large component of my job is interfacing with researchers using the system who have all sorts of questions of varying levels of difficulty.

Every day, I have a new programming problem to solve, and I get to learn something, build a new script, or walk someone through the steps they need to carry out for their work. When I’m not answering user’s questions, I’ve worked on benchmarking/performance testing which means I get to write my own pipelines so I’m always actively engaged with a project.

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

Sexism has been an issue. Physics is a very male-oriented field and it wasn’t uncommon to be the only woman in classes with up to 70 men. I've had people talk to me in baby voices, spread rumors about me, inform me I was lying about my major, and ask me if I'm only studying it to spite men. My relationship with analytical subjects for a long time was framed in reference to my male peers, as though any interest I had was not my own.

I’ve gotten the highest grade in a class and still wondered whether I was just an outsider who had cheated her way to her current position by dumb luck.

The most troublesome aspect of that sort of environment isn’t the momentary instances of discomfort and unhappiness themselves, but what it trains you to believe. There was a period of time where I started to really wonder if I was actually capable of anything.

I’ve gotten the highest grade in a class and still wondered whether I was just an outsider who had cheated her way to her current position by dumb luck, failing upwards without being found out yet. This, thankfully, is a feeling that has dissipated as I’ve found a supportive community, have developed a sense of confidence in my abilities, and have had great role models that have undone that messaging.

Are there any mentors you would like to thank? 

Two people very specifically stick out in my mind. The first is my undergraduate math advisor, Dr. William Velez. He was the person who stepped in and convinced me that I should add math as a second major. He worked with me during my degree program, sent me to conferences, and got me an interview in the biology lab where I was eventually hired.

The second person is the PI of that lab, Dr. Joanna Masel. She taught me a lot in the time I worked for her and had enough confidence in me to assign me to a project that was more than a little ambitious for my skill level. She is invested in the members of her lab and works hard to see them succeed.

She was the one who pointed out that my future likely lay in computing (oddly, this was not obvious to me). Lastly, she was an important role model coming out of the physics department where I had never had a female professor. The example she set helped me shed the impostor syndrome that had been building for years.

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