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The Experience of a Lifetime: Broader Engagement at SIAM CSE17

The BE Group at Google Fiber Academy.

On February 26th, 2017, after many months of planning and coordination, more than 50 funded and self-funded individuals came together in Atlanta, Georgia as members of the Broader Engagement (BE) Program at the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics 2017 Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (SIAM CSE17). The 50+ participants came from many different walks of life, yet they all had at least two things in common: a deep desire to create an inclusive STEM community, and an eagerness to see what the following week of events had in store for them.

In 2015, the BE Program made its first appearance at the SIAM CSE Conference series. Mary Ann Leung, founder of SHI, led the BE Program at the Supercomputing (SC) Conference series for many years before deciding to expand the program to other conferences. Leung’s mission for expanding the BE program was to not only support individuals from diverse backgrounds, but to also normalize inclusion of underrepresented groups by catalyzing a change in the community perspective of who belongs in STEM.

One way the BE Program attempts to normalize the inclusion of its participants is by ensuring they feel a sense of community and engagement at the conference. To help facilitate belonging, the BE Program leads numerous events to supplement the full technical program the conference provides. At the 2017 conference, the BE Program organized more than 20 sessions. Along with the many events that were continued from CSE15, two brand new activities were started: Guided affinity groups and HPC Workshops.

Jehanzeb Chaudry leading a pre-session discussion with his guided affinity group.

Guided affinity groups gave participants an opportunity to absorb more knowledge from the conference technical sessions by discussing the content of the sessions with seasoned professionals. HPC workshops provided hands-on opportunities for learning by allowing participants to explore various computing tools. Some remarks from participants and volunteers bring to light the positive impact these programs had. “Attending conferences as an undergraduate is somewhat daunting because one feels ignorant about most of the speeches and topics discussed,” said Aishat Motolani, an undergraduate student from Albany State University. “Attending the affinity groups help[ed] me make sense of the plenary speeches I attended” she continued. The volunteer guides also found the groups to be rewarding. Jehanzeb Chaudry, a volunteer guide from the University of New Mexico, appreciated the “interest shown by students even though they were hearing about a complicated topic”.  Many other participants had positive remarks for these programs, but in the end, it was the Mentor Protégé program that received the highest regards.

Javier Rojas enjoying his experience during an HPC Workshop.

The Mentor Protégé (MP) Program was first piloted at the SC BE Program, where it found great success. The MP Program saw ongoing triumph as it continued to SIAM CSE BE, and not surprisingly, it received high regards from numerous 2017 participants. Javier Rojas, a graduate student at St. Thomas University, was deeply influenced by the MP Program, and made lasting connections with his mentors. “I believe the most influential aspect of the [BE] program was the Mentor Protégé Program since I was specifically paired with mentors that are professionals in my current field of interest, which pertain to Data Science” said Rojas. Rojas shared that it was most beneficial for him to hear about the trials and tribulations his mentors had faced in their own career paths. Rojas noted that these conversations served as “learning experiences to keep in mind when possibly faced with something the same or similar in the near or distant future . . .”

The MP Program is one of the many ways we strive to meet our mission of changing community perspectives of a ‘normal’ STEM community. All the individuals who serve as mentors in the program are community volunteers who support the BE mission. Astonishingly, over 270 SIAM community members shared an interest in volunteering for the BE Program at CSE17. One of those individuals is Dr. Eric Chi, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Statistics at North Carolina State University and an alum of the prestigious Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship Program (see Bright Scientists Supporting Diversity – The CSGF and BE Connection). Dr. Chi’s motivation for volunteering as a mentor was his positive experience with his previous mentors.

I’ve had many great mentors over the years. In fact, if I had to blame a single person for putting me on my current career path, it’d be my high school geometry teacher. . . In short, I wouldn’t be where I am today without their invaluable advice and experience. This is a great way for me to pass forward a lot of the great stuff I’ve received over the years to developing researchers, particularly for underrepresented minority students, who typically have less exposure to mentorship opportunities.

Dr. Chi served as a mentor to BE participant, Latifa Jackson, a post-doctoral fellow from Howard University. Like Rojas, Jackson was also impacted by the Mentor Protégé program. “One of the things that I am most grateful for during my participation in the BE program is the introduction to Dr. Eric Chi. We bonded over our research goals, and friends that we have in common. We have talked several times about how to balance a research career and family” said Jackson.

Many other participants found that the BE Program provided a perfect environment to make connections that build a strong sense of belonging in the STEM community. Minsoo Thigpen, an undergraduate student from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, shared that the connections she made in the BE Program helped her overcome imposter syndrome.

In school, I’ve thought myself as the painter who happened to also do math and never the other way around. It’s a very dissociative way of attending your math classes to be honest. Even though I’m in a dual degree program at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design, and I’m rightfully an Applied Math major, I always had this sense of imposter syndrome . . . I didn’t realize it until I participated in the BE program, but I had altogether just dismissed the idea of grad school because … how could a painter get a PhD in math? . . . It wasn’t until I fell into one of those long conversations about my goals and aspirations where Mary Ann just looked at me dead in the eyes and said, “If you wanted to, you can go to grad school. You’re smart and capable.” I almost feel silly for having never given it full consideration before.

It is clear that the BE Program has an incredible impact on participants. Lukas WinklerPrins, a math teacher in Los Angeles and Brown University alum, shared that his experience with the BE Program helped him decide to change his career path.

Minsoo Thigpen and Lukas WinklerPrins presenting the STEAM workshop.

I see attending SIAM CSE through BE as a turning point for me; after two years of doing “design”-type work after finishing college, I’m now invested in going back into mathematics and engineering. The BE Program was a huge part of that decision. It reminded me how much I love the mathematician’s way of thinking and showed me a remarkably diverse and interested group of people.

 

Each time the BE Program is held, new advances are made towards normalizing inclusion of people from underrepresented groups in STEM. However, there is still work to be done. We plan to bring the BE Program back to SIAM CSE in 2019 to continue to do our part in creating a STEM community that is inclusive and welcoming to all people.