This is the first year of the Student Training and Engagement Program (STEP). When STEP was first launched, they 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 students 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.
This summer, ACCESS spent time with some of these students during their STEP-2 paid internship and accompanied them on the tour of NCSA’s National Petascale Computing Facility, where many of the interns got their first look at supercomputers and cyberinfrastructure resources housed there. The students in the program were all engaged and excited to learn more about the field of high-performance computing.
The teams they worked on were varied. Noel Ngu, for instance, worked with the Kytos team – an international group outreach led by Vasika Chergarova, the IT assistant director from Florida International University. The Kytos team works on Kytos-ng, which was created to continue the development of Kytos. Kytos-ng has its own team led by Vinicius Arcanjo, a senior software developer. Kytos is a lightweight SDN platform designed with accessibility in mind. Ngu’s project work specifically focused on building a custom toolbar using Vue.js. Each student’s experience was tailored to their interests, so not everyone worked on the same type of project. Some of the STEP students shared what the program was like for them.
Megha M. Moncy is currently a graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Her background spans healthcare and technology, and she’s currently enrolled in the health informatics program at the prestigious IU Luddy School of Informatics. While she began her journey in patient care and oral health, obtaining a degree in dental surgery, she soon found herself eager to try something new.
“An innate curiosity to explore uncharted territories inspired me to switch gears, leading me to delve into the captivating realm of health informatics,” Moncy said. Moncy currently works as a research assistant at the Purkayastha Lab of Health Innovation. “I’m actively involved in the open-source EHR (electronic health record) development team. My role revolves around aiding its deployment, fixing bugs and enhancing usability – a blend of critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity.”
Her success in this field is already apparent, as she’s co-authored two research papers that will be presented at the AMIA 2023 Annual Conference. The opportunity to join the STEP program was immediately intriguing for Moncy.
“The field of cybersecurity has been a fascination for me long before I decided to embark on this health informatics journey,” Moncy said. “My early exposure to data breaches while practicing as a general dentist in India acted as the catalyst in my pursuit to safeguard clinical data.”
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 student’s 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. But 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 NCSA.
“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,” Moncy said. “Today, I stand at the intersection of health and technology, eager to forge a path that leverages my unique blend of experiences to contribute meaningfully to the field of health informatics and cybersecurity.”
Megan Oelgoetz is a first-year graduate student in the predictive analytics concentration of the computer science and quantitative methods masters program at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN. Before beginning graduate school, her educational background was in studio art and history. She, too, was interested in exploring new areas where her career journey could flourish. “My goal is to work in the realm of data science or data engineering, so the STEP program was a natural fit for me,” she said.
Like Moncy, Oelgoetz was impressed by how she was received at NCSA during this phase of the internship. “I have been welcomed into the ACCESS community, which has supported me generously through my continued learning.” Oelgoetz also spoke specifically about one of the important facets of the STEP program. “ACCESS’ STEP program puts a high emphasis on potential and inclusivity, and this was evident in my experience. I think for all of us, this program has been so incredibly inclusive, both in the selection of candidates for the program, but also in our day-to-day interactions with everyone at the centers we’ve visited and those managing the program.”
Dinuka De Silva, who, on top of his ACCESS allocation works at the Pervasive Technology Institute (PTI) at Indiana University, mentored three STEP students this summer. Oelgoetz was among those he mentored. De Silva found the experience to be equally rewarding, and said “It was so interesting to see how these students learned. It excited me to do this great work week by week. I had the pleasure of giving what I know to the young generation. I deeply enjoyed the opportunity to work with three great students.”
During her time at NCSA, Oelgoetz’s interest in cyberinfrastructure work only increased. Being allowed hands-on experience and working on projects in the pipeline was a unique opportunity she relished. She was embedded with the ACCESS Operations team, and her work was focused on that. “I am interested in machine learning and artificial intelligence. It’s been enjoyable and enlightening to have the opportunity to work on an AI resource selector, which was my project during the internship.”
“I learned a lot about hardware in particular. 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.”
Nowshin Anber is an undergraduate student pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science at Florida International University. Like Oelgoetz, her interests include machine learning and artificial intelligence. As a STEP intern, she worked on developing shared web apps to be able to use in ACCESS Operations portal and other websites. The components she worked on are the infrastructure location map, the infrastructure news calendar and the infrastructure production timeline.
She shares something in common with many of the STEP interns – she’s never worked in cyberinfrastructure before. She joined the program because she knew it would provide new career opportunities alongside the traditional tech jobs that awaited her. When asked about her experience in the program, she responded plainly. “I would say one word – awesome.”
Like many of the interns we spoke with, Anber found herself more interested in working in the field of high-performance computing than before she started the STEP program. The program was, overall, a highly positive experience for her. “I’m really impressed with the compassion Winona showed us throughout our STEP journey,” she said. “Also, I have met some amazing people across the country and listening to their stories and sharing mine have been an unforgettable experience and an incredible learning opportunity for me. Hopefully, we’ll keep in touch even after this program. I feel it’s the people who made this an amazing experience for me.”
Anber’s mentors were Dinuka De Silva from Indiana University and JP Navarro from Argonne National Laboratory.
As a Ph.D. student at Syracuse University’s BioInspired Institute, Yuying Zhang is pursuing a doctoral degree in Mechanical Engineering with a focus on finite element simulation. Zhang was embedded with the 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 that 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.”
Zhang was scheduled to be physically at NCSA due to the nature of her project. She was excited to be given the opportunity to have such hands-on experience with the kinds of technology and infrastructure that make up the backbone of cyberinfrastructure. “I feel very lucky to be chosen by STEP to do this work.”
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.”