The Next Step

By Megan Johnson, NCSA
A collage of STEP interns during their internship, with the ACCESS STEP logo in the middle. Meant to show the variety of students and tasks they'll undertake as interns.

The Student Training and Engagement Program (STEP) program is one of the successes of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s ACCESS program. Envisioned as a way to bring new experts into the field of cyberinfrastructure, STEP has promoted 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 any 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.”

Last summer, ACCESS interviewed several students in the second stage of the program – STEP-2. Once the summer ended, students interested in the academic year internship portion of the program, STEP-3, would continue a yearlong journey in the world of high-performance computing. ACCESS caught up with two of the interns who recently completed the final stage of the program and spoke with them about their experiences.

A colorful image with teals and oranges. Triangles cover the background in various hues with white connected dots covering the foreground. Meant to convey the idea of data points and using the ACCESS branding colors.

Megha Moncy

Megha Moncy was one of the interns ACCESS interviewed last summer. While Moncy worked toward finishing up her graduate program in informatics at Indiana University, she continued to intern at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) through the STEP program. Moncy’s interest distilled around cybersecurity and she chose to continue working in that area as she moved from STEP-2 to STEP-3. She quickly discovered that the next stage in the STEP internship program would be quite different from the previous two. “While STEP-1 laid the theoretical foundation and STEP-2 introduced me to practical skills,” she said, “STEP-3 provided an unparalleled opportunity to dive deeper into hands-on cybersecurity work and take on more advanced responsibilities.”

STEP-3 proved to be a more comprehensive experience, taking Moncy through actual problems in cyberinfrastructure cybersecurity. “As a part-time cybersecurity intern in STEP-3, I had the chance to apply the knowledge and skills I had acquired in the earlier phases of the program to real-world scenarios. Building upon the theoretical concepts from STEP-1 and the practical experience gained in STEP-2, I was able to tackle more complex cybersecurity challenges and contribute to the protection of ACCESS’s cyberinfrastructure.”

Megha Moncy poses with her 2024 IUPUI ELITE 50 Award.
Megha Moncy poses with her 2024 IUPUI ELITE 50 Award.

In STEP-3, Moncy functioned as a working member of the cybersecurity team, given tasks that any other member might be asked to perform. She was no longer looking at case studies and learning from past examples. She was working on live services that researchers were depending on.

“I worked closely with the cybersecurity team to scan and analyze the infrastructure, identifying potential weaknesses and proposing remediation strategies,” she said. “This hands-on experience allowed me to understand the intricacies of vulnerability management and develop a keen eye for detecting and mitigating potential security risks.

“One notable project I was involved in was the ACCESS-CI business unit reorganization within Qualys. This required a deep understanding of the tool’s functionality, as well as strong analytical and organizational skills. I collaborated with my supervisors and teammates to plan and execute the reorganization, ensuring a smooth transition and improved efficiency in vulnerability management processes.”

The internship was not without its challenges. Moncy had to balance her ongoing coursework responsibilities with her internship duties. “I was fortunate to have an incredibly supportive and understanding team of supervisors at NCSA,” said Moncy. “They recognized the demands of my academic program and worked closely with me to develop strategies for prioritizing tasks and managing my workload effectively.”

Overall, the hands-on learning experiences and project opportunities I had during STEP-3 have been invaluable for my professional growth. Through these accomplishments, I have gained practical skills, deepened my knowledge, and demonstrated my ability to make impactful contributions in the field of cybersecurity and cyberinfrastructure.

–Megha Moncy, STEP-3 intern

At the end of it all, Moncy maintained a great sense of pride in her accomplishments. “One of my most notable accomplishments was gaining a deeper understanding of NCSA’s cybersecurity work. Through hands-on projects, training sessions, and close collaboration with the cybersecurity team, I was able to immerse myself in the intricacies of protecting and securing the vast cyberinfrastructure at NCSA.

There’s nothing quite like hands-on experience when it comes to internships. Moncy’s words help elucidate thatintangible aspect of being an intern embedded in a team that’s working on real issues. Many of the ACCESS stories involving student interns have driven home this point – these programs offer an experience like no other in large part due to the level of responsibility the students are given when they’re added to these teams.

As Moncy explains, “One of the coolest things about STEP-3 was being entrusted with elevated privileges in Qualys to complete the ACCESS business unit reorganization. The responsibility that came with these elevated privileges was both challenging and thrilling, as I knew my work would have a direct impact on the security posture of ACCESS’s cyberinfrastructure. Having the chance to contribute to such a critical initiative not only expanded my technical knowledge but also instilled in me a deep sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing that my efforts were making a tangible difference in protecting the organization’s digital assets.”

These experiences have laid a strong foundation for my future career aspirations and have prepared me to take on even greater challenges and responsibilities in the field.

–Megha Moncy, ACCESS STEP-3 intern

For Moncy, STEP was just the beginning. She applied for one of the coveted Cyberinfrastructure Professional (CIP) Intern positions at NCSA and started working as a part of the Computing Systems team, where her focus lies in optimizing the operation of high-performance clusters. Many of these interns go on to work at one of the large supercomputing centers across the country, taking with them valuable experience from the job. Moncy’s trajectory is exactly what the STEP program hoped for – bringing new experts into the CI fold. “The STEP program,” she said, “particularly STEP-3, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for my seamless transition into the CIP internship.”

None of Moncy’s hard work would have happened without the support of the team that hosted her, and she was quick to share her respect and admiration for their efforts. “My direct supervisors, Christopher Clausen, Jacob Gallion and Chit Khin, were instrumental in my learning and growth. They consistently made me feel included, provided guidance and feedback and helped me understand the realm of cyberinfrastructure. Most importantly, I am incredibly grateful to Winona Snapp-Childs for being the best mentor and giving me the opportunity to be part of the ICI Community.”

As Moncy looks to the future, a career in cyberinfrastructure is definitely in her sites. “Looking ahead, my goal is to establish myself as an expert in the field of cybersecurity and cyberinfrastructure. I aim to combine my background in health informatics with the technical and practical knowledge gained from STEP and CIP to make impactful contributions in protecting and advancing research computing systems. I am excited to continue growing my unique blend of clinical and technical skills to drive innovation in this space. I am excited to pay forward the investment that has been made in me by making meaningful contributions to the field of cyberinfrastructure and research computing.”

A colorful image with teals and oranges. Triangles cover the background in various hues with white connected dots covering the foreground. Meant to convey the idea of data points and using the ACCESS branding colors.

Megan Oelgoetz

Like Moncy, Megan Oelgoetz began her STEP journey last summer and shared it with ACCESS. Unlike Moncy, Oelgoetz was embedded with a team focused on CI operations. With a background in analytics, Oelgoetz was given hands-on opportunities to improve user resources overseen by the ACCESS Operations service team.

“STEP-3 began as a continuation of STEP-2,” she said. “During STEP-2, I had been tasked with creating a resource selection flowchart within ACCESS Operations’ AI chatbot. Quickly, the project expanded to improving the overall performance of the chatbot. This involved some communication with the vendor, integrating information from CiDeR into the chatbot knowledge base, making some other additions to the knowledge base, and testing the performance in a limited test case of questions with all combinations of factors being tested. This allowed me to put some of my analytics skills to use.”

Megan Oelgoetz

Oelgoetz’s challenges mirrored those of Moncy’s. “Initially, my biggest challenge was balancing part-time work for ACCESS with my coursework and graduate assistant responsibilities,” she said. “Having an even more diverse set of tasks to juggle in a week was a challenging transition for my personality, but I adapted and grew a great deal through the challenge.”

As time went on, Oelgoetz found she also had to adapt to the wider scope of her new role. “An additional challenge was learning how to be more effective on a wide and deep project in my allotted time each week. Both these challenges involved a hefty amount of compartmentalization skills and grace given to myself as I grew in confidence and skill.”

While the new tasks took some adjusting, Oelgoetz still found the work fascinating. “I have had the opportunity to conduct some experimental tests on content in the chatbot knowledge base and initial results suggest changes in the particular content representation are needed. This is an interesting aspect of large language model implementation.”

Like Moncy, Oelgoetz was proud not only that she learned, adapted and grew her CI knowledge but also that her work had a lasting impact on the ACCESS program. “Through my opportunity to communicate with others in the ACCESS program, there is now broader awareness among Resource Providers that collective use of the chatbot can facilitate improvements. It is an ongoing task to customize the knowledge base for the chatbot and create a custom set of test questions for benchmarking performance. I think it is very possible to reach performance goals with continued collaborative effort.”

Most of all, Oelgoetz felt the most positive about the support system during her internship. She specifically called out her mentors for praise. “Dinuka De Silva, who initially supervised me in the project, helped me wade through the project as the work plan was coming into focus,” she said. “This is the type of project where one can put many hours of effort into one-off improvements but where a greater payoff can be gained from strategic planning. And Tony Walker, who supervised me during the second half of STEP-3, is a generous mentor and teacher who helped me broaden my skills for my career while working on the project.”

There is not enough said about making a new hire feel valued even though they are in a quite junior role. This is essential for people to be effective in a community, and it’s something I have had the great privilege to have gained during my time in STEP-3. For this, I am so grateful. I will carry this experience into my career as a model for what it feels like to work in a supportive environment.

–Megan Oelgoetz, STEP intern

As for what comes next, Oelgoetz is looking forward to taking her training to her new position at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “I hope to make a career in the research computing and data (RCD) space. My master’s education has been weighted heavily toward statistics, and I plan to continue to grow in that discipline while I round out my skill set to meet RCD needs.”

These are just two of the many experiences of STEP interns. Going through the entire program isn’t necessary for students to gain valuable knowledge about the field of cyberinfrastructure, and the experience is truly one of a kind. If you’re interested in applying to the STEP program, the application period opens again early next year.

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