NCSA SPIN Program works toward closing the STEM gap

05.19.20 -

To this day, women, persons with disabilities, and minorities are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. That is, their representation in STEM education and workforce is smaller than their representation in the U.S. population. Although, underrepresentation is lesser compared to the last several decades, there are still significant strides to be made. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) values diversity and inclusion and is dedicated to closing this gap.

NCSA works toward overcoming these access barriers by implementing efforts such as the Students Pushing INnovations (SPIN) internship program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. SPIN provides undergraduates the opportunity to address real challenges in high-performance computing, data analysis and visualization, cybersecurity, and other areas of interest. Internship eligibility is not restricted to specific majors. SPIN welcomes all undergraduates in good academic standing to apply. This program aims to create an inclusive and collaborative environment by pairing interns with field experts to enhance tech skills, and in turn, contribute to diversification of STEM fields.

Olena Kindratenko, NCSA Senior Education and Outreach Coordinator, says, "We are proud to support underrepresented groups in STEM by creating an enabling environment at NCSA. This effort would not be possible without dedicated SPIN mentors and students who come from diverse backgrounds and disciplines." NCSA's commitment to improving representation in STEM is ongoing. To shine a light on the impact and significance of these efforts, we are proud to share the experiences of seven outstanding female SPIN interns.

NCSA SPIN intern Daniela Zieba

Daniela Zieba

Computer Science — class of 2022

"The SPIN program as a whole is a fantastic opportunity for networking with full-time staff and fellow students at NCSA. My favorite part of SPIN is definitely the people involved," says Zieba. "Between the team and my mentors, someone was always there to answer the questions I have."

Co-mentored by Principal Security Engineer James Eyrich and Lead Security Engineer Christopher Clausen in NCSA's Cybersecurity and Networking Division, Daniela developed and enhanced internal cybersecurity tools to help detect threats and anomalies in systems and networks.

As a staff member of the Computer Architecture course at Illinois' Grainger College of Engineering and former research intern at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "Personally, I believe the hardest parts of being a minority in STEM lie in overcoming bias and often facing a disadvantage in networking. In the fall 2019 semester, I received a student scholarship to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration. The experience was empowering and I recommend anyone interested in improving diversity in tech to attend," says Zieba. "Building community is an important part of supporting minority students, and finding that community can be difficult at times in male-dominated coursework, which is part of what motivates me to work as an undergraduate course assistant."

Zieba has accepted a summer internship with Microsoft's OneDrive/SharePoint division.

NCSA SPIN intern Devanshi Pratap

Devanshi Pratap

Computer Science, Astronomy — class of 2020

"SPIN has exposed me to a world of cutting edge technology and given me the chance to contribute to the dynamic world of supercomputing. Being a Computer Science and Astronomy major, I have been able to put things I learned in my classes to practical use while being a SPIN intern," say Pratap. "With a network of constant support and help, I've grown in ways that were previously unimaginable."

Mentored by Astronomy Professor Xin Liu Devanshi is working on developing an algorithm that weighs supermassive black holes to help researchers understand large-scale structure evolution of galaxies. "Devanshi has been a great asset to our SPIN project and it has truly been a pleasure to work with her. She is highly responsible, a great teacher and natural leader," says Liu. "She is always figuring out the right next question to ask and is on top of making concrete plans to push the project forward. Devanshi also shows a great passion in communicating her work to the broader community. She has a bright future ahead of her."

As a corporate co-chair of the Women in Computer Science organization on campus and former Microsoft intern, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "With my mentor being one of the few female faculty members in the Department of Astronomy, I feel even more inspired to help other women realize their dream of excelling in the field of technology. NCSA has given me a strong foundational network to help make this a reality. I hope to introduce more females into the world of technology."

Pratap has accepted a full-time position with Microsoft and will join their team as a Software Engineer in Seattle after graduation.

NCSA SPIN intern Lily Ke

Lily (Xiaolan) Ke

Computer Science — class of 2020

"My experience in the SPIN program is invaluable. I am able to use innovative computer science skills and take advantage of various kinds of artificial intelligent methods," says Ke. "I am very grateful to have an excellent, hands-on and supportive mentor, Dr. Eliu Huerta. I also appreciate the support and resources from other members of the Gravity Group and NCSA."

Mentored by the founder and lead of NCSA's Gravity Group Dr. Eliu Huerta, Lily applied her AI skills in cosmology. "Lily is a computer scientist who has developed an innovative method to study galaxies across cosmic time by combining AI and accelerated computing using the HAL cluster at NCSA. She is the first author of the manuscript that introduces this approach. Being acquainted with her superb scholarship and creativity as a researcher, Harvard was the natural choice for her to continue her career," says Huerta. "Lily's sheer talent makes her a great role model for female students. She truly deserves her accomplishments and the place she has carved for herself."

As an undergraduate research assistant and 2019 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship Award recipient, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "I am capable of achieving research goals just like male students and researchers. I take responsibility and no one treats me differently," says Ke. "My mentor has the same expectations for all of his students."

Lily plans to further her education in computer science and has received admissions to graduate programs at multiple institutions including Harvard University.

NCSA SPIN intern Sarah Habib

Sarah Habib

Engineering Physics — class of 2020

"I am very fortunate to be in SPIN and the NCSA Gravity Group. I really can't stress enough how much this opportunity has helped me grow. I've learned multiple aspects of what it means to be a good scientist," says Habib. "My mentor, Eliu Huerta, has given me work that feels significant in the big picture and is consistently challenging. You need that kind of experience to grow as a researcher."

Mentored by the founder and lead of NCSA's Gravity Group Dr. Eliu Huerta, Sarah published multiple articles at the interface of physics and large-scale computing. "Sarah is a physicist who addressed a variety of timely problems in numerical relativity using general relativity and the Blue Waters supercomputer. The quality and impact of her research enabled her to publish three peer-review articles, one of them as the first author, in less than two years. Being accepted to the PhD Physics Program at Caltech speaks volumes about her potential as a young scientist," says Huerta. "Sarah's determination makes her a great role model for female students. She dares to dream big and has made every effort to become who she is today."

As an NCSA REU-INCLUSION program fellow and 2019 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship Award recipient, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "SPIN has been nothing but great in this regard because NCSA is an inclusive environment as a whole! My mentor has invested a lot in my future and the program staff is supportive of all students," says Habib. "Unfortunately, lots of STEM settings aren't like that for women and other minorities."

Sarah has accepted admission at Caltech where she will pursue a PhD in physics and continue researching computational astrophysics.

NCSA SPIN intern Tajesvi Bhat

Tajesvi Bhat

Computer Science — class of 2020

"My SPIN experience is the highlight of my college career. Not only did I have incredible experiences and opportunities, but I was also able to meet and work with some amazing people, without whom my college experience would not have been the same," says Bhat. "I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to work in the NCSA Genomics group."

Mentored by NCSA's Genomics Group Technical Program Manager Dr. Liudmila Mainzer, Tajesvi is working on different workflow management systems, code benchmarking and optimization, cloud computing and big data analytics. "I have gained a lot from the network that I built through the SPIN program and community. I've learned so much over these past years, especially how much I enjoy working in bioinformatics and my love for the field," says Bhat. "In the future, I'd like to dive deeper into the world of computational biology and further explore the harmony between biology and technology."

As the co-founder and vice president of the Women in Cybersecurity (WiCyS) student chapter on campus and runner up for the University's 2020 Student of the Year Award, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "I have received a lot of mentorship and guidance from female mentors and professors who encourage participation and empower female students like me. I learned a lot from the amazing role models and accomplished STEM professionals through the program, and I aspire to continue down this path, build my career in STEM, and encourage females and minority students to explore internships like this one."

Tajesvi has accepted a full-time position with Nike and will join its team as a Software Engineer after graduation.

NCSA SPIN intern Vivian Hu

Vivian Hu

Computer Science, Chemistry, Statistics — class of 2021

"My SPIN experience has greatly fostered my analytical and critical thinking skills. I am excited to not only use the knowledge and concepts that I learned from coursework but also apply them in my research in a more meaningful way," says Hu. "I really appreciate the chance to develop connections with distinguished faculty in the field and other talented students involved in this program. My mentors are super nice and encouraging even if, at times, the results are unsatisfying or unexpected."

Mentored by Blue Waters Professor Dr. Andre Schleife, Vivian develops schema and analysis workflows, and code that automatically analyzes stored data. "Vivian is a great candidate for our project, because of her background: She has very good domain knowledge in chemistry, which helps her understand the scientific questions of our project, centered around optical properties of semiconductor nanocrystals. At the same time, her background in computer science and, specifically, data science is critical to support the machine-learning and coding aspects of her project. I think with this combination she is looking at a bright future, which I am very excited about!"

As a current software engineer intern at Google, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "I think the SPIN program and the University of Illinois have put great efforts into diversity and inclusion. Although most professors and students in STEM majors are male, I think females should not feel inferior in any way. I personally feel confident throughout my undergraduate life and feel very proud that I will finish three STEM majors—Computer Science, Statistics, and Chemistry—in four years. I believe all females in STEM should also be confident and proud of themselves."

Vivian will graduate next May and plans to have a full-time career in the industry.

NCSA SPIN intern Yankun Zhao

Yankun Zhao

Computer Engineering — class of 2020

"SPIN is a very diverse and inclusive program that welcomes all groups. Through this experience, I was able to gain hands-on experience with research and visualization design," says Zhao. "I learned that creativity and willingness to try different things are two fundamental keys to success."

Co-mentored by NCSA's Advanced Visualization Lab Director Dr. Donna Cox and Healthcare Innovations Associate Director Colleen Bushell, Yankun explores 3D visualization techniques to help researchers analyze large and complex bioscience datasets. "Yankun was awarded a Fiddler Innovation fellowship for her collaborative work with two NCSA research groups. It has been a pleasure to support Yankun's creative and useful work," says Cox. Visualization Programmer Kalina Borkiewicz adds, "She built her project from the ground up by researching data visualization methods. Then she developed an interactive app that lets scientists gain insight from these networks. Her project required technical skill, and knowledge of biology and design. We will miss her greatly."

As a 2019 Fiddler Innovation Fellowship Award recipient and Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL) student scholar, she is a strong supporter of closing the gap in STEM. "In SPIN, I was able to interact with awesome students from various backgrounds. I certainly see barriers and obstacles for female students studying science subjects. I am very glad to see that NCSA is making efforts to close the gap by providing useful resources and holding events such as Women@NCSA talks," says Zhao.

Yankun plans to attend grad school and has been offered admissions to Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Learn more about NCSA's SPIN program and apply today!