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Making women visible in scientific computing

In the bicentenary of the birth of Ada Lovelace, widely regarded as having devised the first computable algorithm and thus as the world’s first computer programmer, Tom Wilkie considers some initiatives to counter the widespread impression that scientific computing is the preserve of nerdy men.

At the beginning of this month, the UK’s Genome Analysis Centre, based in Norwich, East Anglia, (TGAC) hosted a 'Women in Bioinformatics Day', opening its doors to female high-school students in order to promote career opportunities in the bioinformatics field to talented young students, regardless of gender. The idea was to counter misconceptions about gender barriers within the subject and to try to ensure that inquisitive young minds -- both those possessing a Y chromosome and those with a double-X -- are inspired to continue their studies in science.

In the course of 2015 Prace, which coordinates the pan-European supercomputing infrastructure, will also promote the image of women in scientific computing by publishing two magazines entirely dedicated to Women in high-performance computing (HPC), to highlight the numbers and importance of women working in HPC. This will be done in cooperation with the organisation ‘Women in HPC’.

The first edition will be published in the run-up to PRACEdays15 in May 2015 where a special satellite event with Women in HPC will be organised. The second one will be a special edition of the PRACE Digest to be distributed at SC15 in Austin in November.

The cover of at least one of these magazines will include a mosaic or collage of pictures of women working in HPC in Europe, and Prace wants to collect as many photographs as possible. It is therefore inviting women working in HPC in Europe to send a photo of themselves to Tiina Leiponen (Tiina.Leiponen@csc.fi) or Marjolein Oorsprong (M.Oorsprong@staff.prace-ri.eu).

In Norwich, three female bioinformaticians from TGAC -- Sarah Bastkowski, Dharanya Sampath and Purnima Caim -- met the students to talk about their research and answer questions regarding their own personal career experiences. The students also got a taste of the work carried out by bioinformaticians through a presentation about the software tool BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool), used identify similarities in DNA. Next, the students got hands-on with a classification activity, concluding the event with a tour of TGAC’s data centre.

Some of the girls had already programmed laboratory robots using C++ and so the bioinformaticians were able to show them how those skills could be applied in the field of biology and the type of job prospects open to the girls.

Dharanya Sampath, scientific programmer in the Crop Genomics and Diversity group at TGAC, said: ‘Sharing my adventures for a woman in science to the students was a great experience. They were curious about different career paths available in the science field and also how valuable a doctorate degree is. I am quite surprised by the fact that only 22 per cent of women’s population are in science. I hope this changes in the near future.’

The Women in High Performance Computing (WHPC) network, based at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre in Scotland, aims to raise the profile of women in HPC by bringing together female HPC scientists, researchers, developers, users and technicians from around the world; encouraging women to participate in outreach activities to engage a new generation of HPC users; and by raising the professional profile of women working in HPC and hence increasing the visibility of role models to other women. The group also has a continuing programme or research to understand the demographics of the HPC community and what steps could be taken to improve equality in the workplace.

Ada Lovelace Day will be marked this year on Tuesday 13 October 2015 and is intended as an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born on 10 December 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, the only child of the poet Lord Byron and his wife Anne Isabella Byron. Now commonly known as Ada Lovelace, she was a mathematician and is chiefly known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include what is now recognised as the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. A month after Ada was born, Byron separated from his wife who remained embittered by her abandonment and who encouraged Ada's interest in mathematics and logic in an effort to prevent her from developing the insanity seen in her father (according to Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron was ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’). Ada remained interested in him nonetheless and on her early death, aged just 36, she was buried next to him.

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