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 Tiffany Connors, cybersecurity engineer, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), Berkeley Lab.
What was your path to working with HPC?
Initially I was a fine arts major with a focus on photography, but while I enjoyed art it always felt like something was missing and none of my coursework felt fulfilling. The difficulty was that I had no idea what else I could do instead. I eventually decided that pursuing a degree in something I was not passionate about was not an ideal use of my time and money.
I left college and worked for three years before deciding to go back to school. I considered majoring in biology, but when I saw that basic chemistry was a prerequisite for the program I immediately became intimidated and discouraged because I had never taken a chemistry class.
Instead I decided that computer science seemed like a good choice, even though I did not have any of the math prerequisites. I had no programming experience, and I didn’t really know what computer science entailed. On this path I earned an associate’s degree in mathematics at Austin Community College before transferring to Texas State University where I earned my bachelor's degree in computer science.
During my studies at Texas State, I worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the compilers research lab. The project I was working on focused on using machine learning for power and performance tuning of CUDA kernels. My research advisor encouraged me to submit a poster of my work to SC15. My poster was accepted as part of the ACM Student Research Competition at SC.
Growing up I was always interested in science, especially microbiology, but never received encouragement to pursue a career in STEM.
Attending SC15 was my first exposure to HPC. I instantly fell in love and was blown away. Here was a field that combined my longtime passion for science with my newer passion for computers!
After SC15 I began searching for HPC internships. I was fortunate to get an internship at TACC that summer and once again present my work at SC16. Presenting my work at SC16 helped me make connections that led to internships at LLNL and NERSC.
Additionally, I was recommended by a fellow TACC intern and friend, Grace Rodriguez, to be considered for an opening on NERSC’s student cluster competition team. I was able to join the team and I competed alongside five other talented young women at ISC17, where we were the only all female team.
Near the end of my second internship at NERSC I was encouraged to apply for an open position for HPC consulting and software integration. Recently I have transitioned to my current role as an HPC cybersecurity engineer.
What’s cool about working with HPC?
One of the aspects of working in HPC that I enjoy is knowing that my work helps researchers across many different scientific domains solve complex problems. Supercomputers help accelerate science and enable scientific discoveries that would otherwise not be possible. In addition to the valuable purpose many HPC systems serve, they are also just really exciting machines. I get to work with some of the fastest supercomputers in the world.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in taking this path?
Lack of role models growing up, sexism, and imposter syndrome.
Growing up I was always interested in science, especially microbiology, but never received encouragement to pursue a career in STEM. I didn’t know anyone who was a scientist, engineer, or programmer. I was often encouraged to pursue a career in the arts or in a field that was more “feminine.” Not knowing anyone in STEM also made it difficult to see a career as a scientist as something realistic and attainable.
It can be disheartening and sometimes just downright exhausting having people frequently doubt your expertise on a subject just because of your gender.
Today I still encounter people who are not supportive of women in STEM. It can be disheartening and sometimes just downright exhausting having people frequently doubt your expertise on a subject just because of your gender. During college I had people tell me more than once that the only reason I got my research position or any of my achievements was because I was a woman.
Aside from blatant sexism, there is also plenty of implicit bias. Last year at an HPC workshop, where I was the only woman in attendance, someone asked me if I was “excited to learn about really big computers.” But for all the people who either actively discourage women in HPC or express biased opinions which they might not be aware are offensive or damaging, there are many more who are extremely supportive.
Any mentors you would like to thank?
I have been fortunate enough to have many mentors that have helped me along in my career. Most notably, I’d like to thank my undergraduate research advisor Dr. Apan Qasem. He is the professor whose lab I worked in at Texas State University and the person who initially got me interested in HPC. His support, teaching, and encouragement helped open up many opportunities for me.
More recently, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rebecca Hartman-Baker. She was an outstanding mentor and coach for the ISC17 student cluster competition team I was part of. She was also my mentor during my first internship at NERSC and my boss for the first full-time position I held at NERSC.
Rebecca cares deeply about making HPC an inclusive environment and is enthusiastic about helping students and early career individuals pursue opportunities within HPC. She has provided me with lots of guidance and advice that has helped me grow my career and navigate some of the difficult situations I have encountered along the way.