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STEP students pose in front of the NCSA sign during their visit

STEP students pose in front of the NCSA sign during their visit

This is the first year of the Student Training and Engagement Program (STEP), an ambitious offering run by the ACCESS (Advanced Cyberinfrastructure Coordination Ecosystem: Services & Support) Operations team. ACCESS is an NSF-funded program that provides a network of cyberinfrastructure resources available to researchers in the U.S. Delta is just one of the ACCESS resources available for allocations, and NCSA has a long history of partnership with NSF’s program, with leadership roles in ACCESS (preceded by XSEDE), NCSA provides support and resources to researchers around the country. The Operations team is led by PI Tim Boerner, NCSA’s associate director of Integrated Cyberinfrastructure; Leslie Froeschl, NCSA senior program manager, Cyberinfrastructure, ICI Project Management, is also on the ACCESS Operations team and has been heavily involved in STEP. 

When STEP was first launched, the ACCESS Operations team had lofty expectations. Envisioned as a way to provide students with training on marketable skills in the areas of operations, data and networking, and cybersecurity, STEP aims to promote the development of a diverse, competitive STEM workforce by providing opportunities to students, with a focus on recruiting and enrolling those from underrepresented groups (Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian), and those who identify as women.

“Our main goal is to contribute to raising the level of awareness about cyberinfrastructure as a viable career path while also providing students with high-quality training that will lead them in the workforce,” said Winona Snapp-Childs, Ph.D., STEP director and chief operating officer of Indiana University’s Pervasive Technology Institute (PTI). “It’s important that our current cyberinfrastructure expertise gets shared with the next generation of cyberinfrastructure professionals.”

Based on the responses from the first cohort of STEP students, the ACCESS Operations team not only met this goal but surpassed it, igniting enthusiasm for cyberinfrastructure work in the interns who recently completed the second phase of the program.

STEP interns posing in front of Delta, NCSA’s newest supercomputer and the most performant GPU resource in NSF’s portfolio
STEP interns Megan Oelgoetz, Megha Moncy and Yuying Zhang posing in front of Delta, NCSA’s newest supercomputer and the most performant GPU resource in NSF’s portfolio

This summer, STEP interns spent four weeks on-site at NCSA, learning the ins and outs of cyberinfrastructure support work. While at NCSA, interns had hands-on time with HPC resources and support structures. The interns were eager to see what supercomputers look like in person, and were given that chance when they toured NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility.

The teams the interns worked on were varied. Each student’s experience was tailored to their interests, so not everyone worked on the same type of project. Megha Moncy was among this year’s cohort of interns. Moncy’s interest in cybersecurity meant that as part of the program, she was embedded with NCSA’s cybersecurity team. She spoke very highly of the opportunities afforded to her while at NCSA.

The experience enriched me with foundational knowledge in cyberinfrastructure and advanced cybersecurity principles, methods and tools. Here, I honed my skills in threat analysis, risk assessment, cryptography, and network security, focusing on developing threat-hunting capabilities using security logs, vulnerability assessments, and other crucial security data.

Megha Moncy, ACCESS STEP intern

Moncy was also impressed with the depth of knowledge she gained in just the few weeks she’d been assigned at NCSA. “My engagement with the Cybersecurity team at NCSA was another enriching experience. Here, I assisted the ACCESS cybersecurity group in identifying, evaluating, managing and remediating vulnerabilities found in ACCESS’s cyberinfrastructure. To further my understanding, I undertook several training courses from vulnerability-management vendors, specifically on Qualys and Kerberos, and gained practical experience working alongside ACCESS cybersecurity staff.”

Moncy’s final comments were echoed in many of the students’ experiences. At the start of the program, they felt a little intimidated to be placed right in the thick of it at a large HPC center. However the professionalism of the experts they worked with gave them the confidence to feel like colleagues. Moncy’s mentors included Jacob Gallion, a security engineer at NCSA, and Chris Clausen, the lead security engineer at the Center.

Megha Moncy

The journey has been incredibly rewarding, particularly due to the supportive and experienced supervisors and colleagues, who’ve constantly had my back despite our diverse academic backgrounds.

– Megha Moncy, ACCESS STEP intern

STEP intern Megan Oelgoetz was similarly impressed by how she was received at NCSA during this phase of the internship. She was placed with the Operations team and found that despite her lack of experience in the HPC realm, everyone on the team was gracious and patient. “I have been welcomed into the ACCESS community, which has supported me generously through my continued learning.” 

Megan Oelgoetz
Megan Oelgoetz, STEP Intern

“I learned a lot about hardware in particular,” Oelgoetz said. “This is very different than what I’m used to in my graduate studies. One of the reasons this program was appealing to me is that I wanted a broader view of the big data world. Being able to be on the other side, thinking about how researchers collaborate with supercomputing centers and how that happens, is very interesting to me.”

As a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University’s BioInspired Institute, STEP intern Yuying Zhang is pursuing a doctoral degree in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on finite element simulation. Zhang was embedded with NCSA’s data networking team during phase two of the STEP program. “This work is really very new for me,” she said. “Data networking is much deeper than what I’m familiar with. I was shown what the daily work was like for technicians who work in this field. Cables and switches – I think this is really fun. I truly began to understand how all of this stuff works. I also loved the coursework and learned so much.”

Yuying Zhang
Yuying Zhang, STEP Intern

Zhang was grateful for her mentors, Blade Pickering, a network engineer at NCSA, and Dave Wheeler, a senior technical program manager at NCSA. Her mentors were why she felt she had the courage to try new things. “The data networking team is very patient with me despite my newness with the subject. The job is really complex, but my mentor was always saying, ‘Try this!’ and they were always encouraging me to try it.”

Visiting the NPCF facility was a highlight for Zhang. “I loved seeing how it all worked and learning and seeing it all work together. It helped me understand how I could make it all work if I did this job.”

Zhang also expressed that the experience was a good one and left her with positive feelings about cyberinfrastructure. “I’m now more interested in working in data networking than I ever thought I’d be. Everyone was so supportive; it made me feel like I could do a very good job in this field.”

You can read more about this story here.

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