iSGTW Feature - Interview with Nancy Wilkins-Diehr

Feature - Nancy Wilkins-Diehr: "Follow what you enjoy"


Nancy Wilkins-Diehr, head of the TeraGrid Science Gateways, shown passing the final "gateway" at the Boston Marathon. "I'm probably best known at the Supercomputer Center for my running at lunchtime," she says. She also enjoys cooking, entertaining, playing flute and spending time with her husband and 12-year-old son Julius.

Image courtesy of Boston Athletic Assn.

ISGTW interviewed Nancy Wilkins-Diehr, head of the TeraGrid Science Gateways project. She shared her thoughts on her work, how she got where she is, and how young people can keep their career options open.

iSGTW: Please tell us what you do in TeraGrid.

NW-D: I lead the Science Gateways program in the TeraGrid. The gateway program connects high end supercomputers with Web portals designed by scientists for scientists. We're able to extend the capabilities of scientists, often without them even knowing they are using the TeraGrid.

iSGTW: What has been your career path leading up to your present position?

NW-D: My career path was rarely clear to me, especially when I was in school. I enjoyed math, but it was only near the end of earning a math and philosophy degree that I discovered applied math. With one class, I learned that math could be applied to physical systems via engineering.

I pursued a master's degree in aerospace engineering then went on to help design missiles at General Dynamics and gas-cooled reactors at General Atomics.

While at General Atomics, which operated the San Diego Supercomputer Center, I decided that it might be more interesting to help people from all fields use supercomputers. I've been at the Center ever since. It's been a challenging, interesting, ever-changing career that I really enjoy.

iSGTW: What are the big issues today that the grid community in general, and the TeraGrid in particular, are having to address?

NW-D: Reliability is one. And we need to be able to adapt quickly to changing technologies.

Today I was able to add a genome analysis gadget from the Open Life Sciences Gateways to my iGoogle page. The ability to meet the next generation of young scientists where they live is very powerful.

iSGTW: What words of wisdom and encouragement do you have to offer young women considering careers in the computing field?

NW-D: To young women and men I'd say: follow what you enjoy and don't feel that your career decisions need to be complete.

It's partly by chance, but with an understanding of what I enjoy that led me to where I am today. I'm not sure when or how young people get diverted from technical career paths, but I will say that taking the math and science courses allows you to keep your options open for the future.

And don't be afraid to ask questions. Others may be pretending that they understand, but you really will and that's important.

Finally, don't let anyone tell you 'no'. Back in grad school I took fluid mechanics before some of the more basic engineering courses and I found myself asking a lot of questions. The professor told me he didn't think I was cut out for this. He was wrong.