Women in High Performance Computing launches Texas chapter, holds first meeting

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Women in High Performance Computing launched its Texas chapter this year to provide resources and networking opportunities for women working in computing fields.

Melyssa Fratkin, an industrial programs director at the Texas Advanced Computing Center at UT, said she co-founded the Texas chapter to build a supportive community for women. The Intel Corporation held an event for the first meetup of women working in high performance computing fields in Austin on Nov. 9, a few days before the annual SC18 supercomputing conference in Dallas on Nov. 11.

“There are so many companies that have supercomputers, machine learning, AI or other kinds of computing, but there just aren’t enough women working in those fields,” Fratkin said. “This organization was formed to talk about that and to give women a place to support each other and share information.”

High performance computing fields are useful in various industries, such as the energy and automotive industries, Fratkin said. There are over 40,000 open computing jobs in Texas, but these positions are not filled with highly qualified women, which can be problematic, she said. 

The Texas chapter aims to change that by providing resources and networking opportunities through in-person workshops as well as webinars, or online seminars, so that anyone can join in the conversation, Fratkin said. The Texas chapter will be open to both students and working professionals to create a mentorship program in the future, she said.

Ruby Mendenhall, an associate professor in sociology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was a guest speaker at the event in Dallas. She said she was surprised by how someone like her, who doesn’t have a technical background in high performance computing, could also utilize technology in her research.

The fellowship she received from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications allowed her to work with a data specialist to examine over 800,000 documents of black women’s lost history through books, journals and diaries from 1740 to 2014.

“We didn’t know if we could go through these documents and find out information about black women,” Mendenhall said. “To have that was amazing to me. The reason to use these tools is so that we can recover as much history about various groups as possible. You can do it for black women, you can do it for other groups.”

Mendenhall said it’s important that people with diverse backgrounds and research specializations be part of Women in High Performance Computing because it can reveal new findings for social scientists and improve representation in high computing fields.

Tricia Berry, director of the Women in Engineering Program at UT, said increasing representation for diverse groups in engineering and STEM fields is crucial to creating products for everyone.

“If we don’t have diversity in our product design, in our testing, in our marketing and our technology spaces, we’re not bringing the best technology out there for all of us to utilize,” Berry said.

Fratkin said she hopes the Texas chapter will inspire more chapter programs to start across the U.S.

“We’re sort of the guinea pigs for the chapters,” Fratkin said. “Once we survive our first year, they’re going to have more chapters from other places around the country. We are working on building up our membership base and having more events in the near future.”