WINS for Women at SC15

By Marijke Unger
12/07/2015 - 12:00am

The energy and enthusiasm around the interview table is palpable as four of the five women recipients of a scholarship to help build SCinet, one of the world’s fastest computer networks, share their experiences at this year’s Supercomputing Conference, known as SC15.

As they excitedly swap tech jargon and request to see each other’s network designs for fresh ideas, it’s evident that they relish this opportunity to be among professional peers and mentors, but also recognize the rarity of having this type of highly technical discussion among women.

The percentage of women studying computer sciences and entering related fields like high performance computing (HPC) and high performance networking (HPN) has been traditionally low. But alarmingly, the numbers are in decline, down from 37% in 1985 to a mere 18% in 2013. 

The five scholarship recipients, selected from a pool of 19 candidates, participated in the ground-up construction of SCinet, which boasts the latest and greatest in network technology, takes close to two years to design, a month to set up, a week to operate, and a day to tear down. 

The WINS team in the NCAR booth at SC15
Marla Meehl and Jason Zurawski (on left) and Mary Hester (far right) were instrumental in making the WINS program possible. Here, they visit the new NCAR booth at SC15 with the five WINS recipients: from left, Sana Bellamine, Kathy West, Amy Liebowitz, Debbie Fligor, and Megan Sorensen. (Photo by Marijke Unger)

SCinet relies upon over 80 miles of fiber optic cable that is installed in the convention center (this year in Austin, TX), and is configured, maintained, and ultimately disassembled by a workforce of around 150 volunteers.  These volunteers are distributed across 19 teams that are each focused on one unique area of the overall network implementation. All 19 teams are critical to creating SCinet, which must seamlessly serve the nearly 13,000 bandwidth-hungry attendees of the annual SC conference.

Jason Zurawski, science engagement engineer with the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), the dedicated research network of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and a multi-year veteran of SCinet, had often observed the number of women participating in the SCinet volunteer effort was incredibly low, even compared to the already low national average of women working in the tech sector.

Based on conversations with ESnet colleague and fellow SCinet team member Mary Hester, it became clear that SCinet could be the perfect arena for exposing early career female engineers to a combination of dedicated expert mentors, intense hands-on technical training, and unique opportunities to make professional connections in their fields of interest.  As a result, Jason and Mary approached NCAR’s Marla Meehl and Wendy Huntoon, president and CEO of KINBER, Pennsylvania’s regional research network, with the idea to see how they could make such a program a reality.

"Our friends at ESnet really helped to plant the initial seed," said Marla. "It got us thinking about a whole range of opportunities where we could bend the trend upward and increase female representation in SCinet and tech in general. Ultimately, it was a team effort among many individuals and organizations."

Together ESnet, KINBER, and NCAR reached out to the National Science Foundation (NSF) about creating a new scholarship program. The program would focus on early career female engineers, provide the chance to attend the SC15 conference, and be an integral part of the SCinet volunteer team, responsible for building one of the fastest networks in the world. 

NSF saw merit in the idea, and supported the request for supplemental funds on an existing grant to boost underserved institutions in HPC and HPN. The result of the collaborative effort was named the Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) program.

"WINS represents just one small step towards solving a larger problem around cultivating and preparing the next generation of female engineering talent," said Jason. "SCinet provides a very focused and very in-depth technical training opportunity that is unparalleled in the world. While this is just one piece of the overall diversity puzzle, we hope it will have a broader impact in time."

WINS recipients at SCinet booth
WINS recipients discuss their work at the SCinet installation in the SC15 exhibit hall. (Photo by Marijke Unger)

Each of the five scholarship recipients contributed to a different team within the SCinet effort. Amy Liebowitz, from the University of Michigan, was on the "commodity" team, which sets up the local-area network connections which allows the convention center meeting rooms used by attendees for workshops and tutorials as well as for technical paper talks and BoFs to have reliable bandwidth.

To accomplish this, Amy configured the switches that control the connections as well as did troubleshooting on faulty connections and made changes on the fly to help attendees in need.  As she puts it, she "spent a lot of time in closets, plugging things in, and taping cables to walls."

Kathy West, the scholarship recipient from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was on the network security team, dealing with potentially malicious attacks on the network. Because SCinet is so well known in the world, the security team must carefully configure and actively monitor the network at all times to ensure the network is airtight.  

Kathy West talks with SCinet colleague
WINS recipient Kathy West discusses network security with a SCinet colleague. (Photo by Marijke Unger)

Kathy monitored network traffic, both wireless and wired, and checked systems for vulnerabilities, collaborated with vendors when their equipment seemed to be at risk, and briefed the SCinet help desk volunteers so they could best assist attendees and exhibitors. "My ‘regular’ job is as a system administrator, and this was the perfect opportunity to experience the broader perspective of how systems and tools are interconnected," Kathy said. "Seeing this in action is an invaluable resource, it’s the one thing you can’t get anywhere else."

On the wireless team was Meghan Sorensen, from Idaho State University – Pocatello, and her routing team complement was Debbie Fligor, from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Meghan said she "really didn’t know what to expect, but came ready to learn new things." And Debbie had never seen a large exhibit floor built, "seeing the empty show floor turn into a full show floor was pretty astounding." Debbie had no experience with HPC before this event, and was excited about the opportunity for hands-on work with different technologies in an HPC environment. 

"This kind of discussion and sharing of expertise, and the network of peers, has been really amazing," said Debbie. Meghan nodded in agreement, adding that "having these connections is just awesome, being able to ask people you have met and trust because you’ve seen them work is really neat, and these are things we bring back not just for ourselves, but also to our institutions."

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SCinet relied on over 80 miles of fiberoptic cable and served nearly 13,000 attendees at SC15. (Photo by Marijke Unger)

For all of the scholarship recipients, having open dialogue in technology among women allowed them to build relationships that they felt were helpful, motivating, and supportive.

"I was less nervous, as an early career person, asking women peers my questions –I felt less likely to be judged," said Amy. Kathy agreed, pointing out that "it can be intimidating to ask questions of an all-male team, especially as the youngest member."

Sana Bellamine, the scholarship recipient from the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC), was missing from the interview group because she was busy helping colleagues from her home institution troubleshoot a problem in the exhibit hall. In an email later, Sana wrote:

"It has been an amazing experience. I have truly enjoyed being part of the engineering team responsible for building the fastest network in the world! I was impressed by the level of engineering resiliency and automation built into the SC15 network. I am thankful to the WINS program for this opportunity."

As the women discuss their roles and experiences at SC15, they express a sense of camaraderie and solidarity with each other. They have learned about the interdisciplinary teamwork needed to pull off a technological feat like SCinet, and they recognize that they have each contributed to the success of the whole.

"We’re nothing without each other," Meghan says, and they all nod in agreement.