SIAM News Blog

Life is a Tensor. . .Pilot Program Aims at Expanding SIAM Impact

By Silvia Crivelli and Mary Ann Leung

The 2015 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE15) broke attendance, fundraising, and other records. Adding to the list of accomplishments was a pilot mentoring and Broader Engagement (BE) program organized by Sustainable Horizons Institute (SHI), a nonprofit organization founded by Mary Ann Leung, a longtime SIAM member and member of the CSE15 Organizing Committee. 

When Silvia Crivelli, a computational biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), contacted Leung about a venue for students to present their research from the WeFold program, an immersive and intensive learning experiment she organized last summer at LBNL, CSE15 was the ideal choice. The program was part of the WeFold “coopetition” that brings together scientists worldwide to compete and collaborate with the goal of advancing research in protein folding. By the end of the program, students, mostly undergraduates, who had never written computer code, and were unfamiliar with basic UNIX commands, had written and run code on a supercomputer, and created a database with protein models, among other things. At the end of the summer, the students—who had never been to or presented at a conference before—submitted abstracts for a minisymposium at CSE15. From this plan grew the idea of starting a Broader Engagement (BE) and mentoring program, with the vision of broadening SIAM’s impact by supporting the attendance of students, faculty, and professionals from diverse backgrounds, and encouraging their participation in CS&E research. The goals of the mentoring program were to not only connect protégés with mentors during the conference, but also to influence their careers long after the meeting.  The mentoring program was open to all BE members as well as a small number of CSE15 attendees who expressed an interest in finding a mentor.

Through funding provided by NSF, SIAM, Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), Google, LBNL and individual do-nors, 40 students, faculty, and professionals from 32 institutions and 21 states, Puerto Rico, and Saudi Arabia received travel grants and participated in the program.  The inaugural cohort consisted of nearly 50% female and 3% American Indians/Alaska Natives, 16% Asian, 28% Black/African American, 11% multiple race, 39% white, and 31% percent Hispanic. In addition, 3% indicated having a disability. It was a multidisciplinary group including computational biology, medicine, physics, Earth sciences, computer science, computer engineering, numerical analysis/simulations, operations research, and stochastic research. Many were first-generation college scholars.  

Mentors were recruited through the Workshop Celebrating Diversity, CSE15 registration system, as well as a campaign led by Leung and Elizabeth Leake from STEM-Trek who also served on the CSE15 BE committee. Other CSE15 BE committee members came from the SIAM and Supercomputing BE communities. Christine Harvey of Mitre Corporation organized icebreaking, team building, and professional development activities. Other committee members included Richard Coffey of ANL, Ken Craft from Intel, and Veronica Vergara Larrea from ORNL.

One of the common challenges with mentoring programs is facilitating meaningful and lasting relationships between strangers. Two unique aspects of the CSE15 BE mentoring program: the “Pathways to Success” workshop and the “Wilderness” craft project, were specifically designed to tackle this challenge.  In a “Pathways to Success” activity led by Leung, mentors and protégés were asked to draw and discuss a pathway through their past, present, and future. Janette Garcia, an undergraduate student at University of Texas Pan American, said “This workshop made me realize that there are many people that have overcome difficult situations in life, and still never gave up. I also realized how incredible my life has been, coming from a very low income family without enough money to buy food, and now having the opportunity to improve our way of life by being the first one in my family pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science.”  Melissa Romanus, a doctoral student at Rutgers had this to say, “This workshop helped me realize that the route to your goals and dreams does not have to be perfect. In fact, it can be REALLY ‘hilly’ with ‘sharp and unexpected turns.’ But even if the path is non-traditional, you can still get to that endpoint as long as you keep pushing forward.”

A protégé described the “Wilderness” craft project, devised and led by Larisse Voufo of Google, as an effective icebreaker that gave the pair an opportunity for conversation to evolve naturally as they designed and built their project. Vicky Fondjo, a faculty member at Langston University, said of the project, “It had a good impact on my mentoring experience. It helped me make a better connection with my mentor, and made us see similarities in our personal/professional lives.” Romanus observed, “I am not very good at art projects in general, but it was really therapeutic to be creating artwork and to be able to give it to someone else. While we were all working on our projects, we were also chatting about our fields and our experiences. It was amazing to find out how much we had in common, even though our backgrounds were so diverse.”

It was not all fun and games: the WeFold students also used the BE room to practice for their minisymposium. Seeing their accomplishments and watching them present their research with confidence and poise inspired and motivated other BE participants. Daily lunchtime sessions organized by Tony Drummond (LBNL) and Silvia Crivelli highlighted the next 24 hours of activities, supporting the technical focus of the BE program. To encourage participation in the poster session, Sally Ellingson of University of Kentucky discussed the importance of presenting a poster, preparation, and presentation skills. Protégé Iftikhar Ali, an applied mathematics doctoral student, spoke of the impact the program had on his experience, “Attending a SIAM meeting was always a dream for me. Initially, I thought it was going to be  usual conference such as listening to lectures and meeting people. But being a part of the BE and Mentor-Protégé program, I learned many different things by attending diverse gatherings of students. I received personalized advice from my mentor Prof. Susan Minkoff and useful recommendations on how to benefit from the conference. I appreciated the excellent opportunities for students to enhance their communication skills and polish their talent.” Mentors also gained benefits as indicated by Jay Bardhan, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University, “I would absolutely volunteer again, and I’d recommend everyone do so if they have an opportunity! My mentee, and the other students who participated in the program, brought an infectious enthusiasm and curiosity to their work, and to possible career paths,” Bardhan said. “My immediate takeaway from watching the students’ talks at CSE15 was that similar programs should be started across the country, in all branches of STEM and CS&E.”

Pre and post-conference surveys indicate that the level of participant confidence in research, mentoring, internships, careers, and exploring scientific interests all increased after CSE15 BE. Yeonjoo Yoo, Vice President of the SIAM Student Chapter at Indiana University, has received approval to start a chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics at her campus. She plans to start a mentoring program modeled after the BE program. Joseph Emelike, an undergraduate at Bowie State University, was so excited about his experience that he is starting a SIAM student chapter.  

Using at times unconventional techniques like drawing and crafts, the BE/mentoring pilot program appears to have had a positive impact on participants and their career trajectories. Post-conference activities continue to facilitate mentoring, and while lasting impacts are still unknown, initial indications are promising.

“The Broader Engagement program at SIAM was hands-down the best conference program I have ever participated in,” Romanus reflected on her experience. “This conference helped me rediscover my passion. It forced me to hone my “research elevator pitch” and think about my long term goals in graduate school. . . In talking to my new BE friends, a lot of us have found that this conference has opened the door to full-time jobs, internships, collaborations, friendships, and much more.”

Silvia Crivelli is a computational biologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Mary Ann Leung is president of the Sustainable Horizons Institute. 

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