Broadening Horizons through Broader Engagement

Broadening Horizons through Broader Engagement

In 2012, Verónica Melesse Vergara was working in high performance computing, but as a young woman originally from Ecuador, she didn’t know all the opportunities or mentors available to her. 

A staff member at Purdue University’s Research Computing group, she had been a student volunteer at the 2010 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage, and Analysis (SC) and was seeking an affordable way to attend as an early career professional. She found Sustainable Horizon Institute’s (SHI) Broader Engagement (BE) program, which provides professional development and community building at SIAM Computational Science and Engineering conferences. Through the BE program, she was able to attend the conference, find mentors, and network with other young professionals.

As a result, she learned she had more career options than she realized. “I didn’t know that I could work at a US National Lab as a foreigner,” says Verónica. “I also was able to engage with key organizers of the conference and began helping in the planning committee, and more recently, was elected in 2020 to the Steering Committee for SC.”

Today Verónica is a Group Leader of the System Acceptance and User Environment Group at the National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). She gained so much from that first experience with BE in 2012 that she has been on the organizing committee for BE every year since.

“I am an introvert, but I know that representation helps. My being here helps,” says Verónica. “It is wonderful to have a network of other underrepresented people who are in the same stages of their careers for support,” says Verónica. “BE sessions also focus on many different things, including unconscious bias. By increasing awareness of issues like this, it increases the numbers of allies in our field and improves the environment for everyone.”

In addition to her work with BE, Verónica chairs the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in ORNL’s Computing and Computational Sciences Directorate. She also helped design and is now managing ORNL’s Pathways to Computing Internship Program, a 10-week summer program that provides undergraduate students with learning opportunities in computer science, computational science, and mathematics. Similar to SHI’s Sustainable Research Pathway’s program, ORNL’s Pathways to Computing teams students with ORNL research and technical staff in computing who serve as mentors. Students are able to contribute in meaningful ways to projects in computer science, health data science, climate science, and other computing disciplines.

One student from the program had a poster accepted by a major conference. Others have gone on to pursue graduate degrees influenced by the experience they had at ORNL.

“Many scientific organizations are saying, ‘Diversity is important,’ but not as many are actually taking steps to increase the diversity of their teams. Programs like BE and Pathways are important because they open students’ and young professionals’ eyes to careers they might not have known about or considered before.”