The Women Changing The Face Of HPC

Against all odds, women are taking the world of high performance computing by storm. Find out how two stellar researchers are advancing commercial computing and driving collaboration in the region.

AsianScientist (Mar. 21, 2022) – Augusta Ada Byron, more commonly known as Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was a mathematician widely lauded as the first computer programmer. Despite naysayers doubting her contribution to Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine machine, today, her name and legacy stand out as a shining celebration of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

While computing remains significantly male- dominated, women pioneers have made their mark in the history of the field. In fact, an all-woman team programmed ENIAC, the first large-scale electronic machine that sparked the computer age, with Admiral Grace Hopper inventing the first high-level computer language.

As recently as 2017, however, women have represented only ten percent of all high performance computing paper authors. While there is not yet an abundance of women in HPC, their contributions have been impactful and far-reaching. Supercomputing Asia spoke to two female researchers who have made a name for themselves in the sector, not solely as women in computing, but as distinguished specialists in their fields.

Computing everyday chemistry

A computational chemist by training, Dr. Freda Lim of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) seeks to understand the interactions of consumer care formulations, like pain relief patches or skin care products, on consumers. Her research leads to effective solutions that go beyond the lab bench and onto the bathroom shelf.

As a young student pursuing her undergraduate degree, Lim was not fully convinced of her future in computing. Uninspired by what she perceived to be mundane, repetitive and unguided work at the time, Lim had all but made up her mind to never pursue a career in computational chemistry.

It wasn’t until her graduate studies, influenced by the patience and intelligence of her supervisor, that she discovered the joy of building, refining and testing modeled electrons, atoms and molecules within a system—the core of computational chemistry.

Today, Lim conducts research in the area of consumer care products while playing a leading role in A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) as senior scientist, innovation lead and deputy department director. Her many hats culminate in advancing HPC in the consumer care industry and ultimately formulating the products we use in our bathrooms every day.

“My first ‘real’ computational chemistry project in graduate school involved semiconductor materials while my second was trying to find catalytic materials for carbon monoxide oxidation at IHPC,” explained Lim. “Though both topics intrigued me, nothing fascinated me more than looking into the chemistry and interactions behind consumer care products because these are what we come into intimate contact with every day.”

Harnessing the power of HPC, Lim and her team study the interactions between polymers and other ingredients like nanoparticles, surfactants or even other polymers. By using molecular dynamics simulations, Lim is also able to understand how these different formulations interact with soft material like hair and skin—contributing to the development of effective and safe products for people to use.

As a mentor to young researchers and a speaker at conferences like Supercomputing Asia and in the Skin Research Society Singapore webinars, Lim plays an active role in advancing Singapore and Asia’s HPC landscape.

“The Asian presence in the field of HPC has been growing consistently over the last decade with with Japan’s K computer and Fugaku, and China’s Tianhe systems,” she said. “My hope for the coming years is for the power of HPC to be democratized and accessible to students in more parts of Asia, so that we can benefit from a healthy and continuous pool of talent that can be trained for careers in HPC.”

A team sport

In addition to being boosted by accessible education and mentorship, the world of HPC is also spurred by collaboration between academia, industry and government entities as they work to address global challenges like climate change and public health.

A strong proponent of this type of collaboration, and one of the changemakers leading the effort, Dr. Christine Ouyang holds several titles at IBM as a distinguished engineer, master inventor and IBM systems CTO lead. Equally passionate about education in HPC, part of Ouyang’s work has revolved around the IBM Global University Programs designed to build relationships with academic institutions.

“We have provided technologies including hardware and software, course materials, IBM PhD fellowships, faculty awards and other academic awards to support research and skills development,” Ouyang shared.

Launched over six decades ago, the partnerships forged with schools around the world, from Switzerland to Pakistan, have helped grow the talent pool for private enterprises and government agencies, accelerate innovation from research to market and drive economic development with startups in the region.

In fact, from 2012 to 2013, IBM established 13 Collaborative Innovation Centers (CICs) to advance emerging tech fields like big data, advanced analytics and cloud computing. One such partnership Ouyang worked on continues to bear fruit at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

With the launch of this CIC, IBM provided NUS with analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) software, computing hardware as well as industrial use cases from clients and mentors for students. These are all resources that are put to good use in nurturing HPC talent in Singapore.

With 21 years at IBM under her belt, Ouyang has witnessed first-hand what each stakeholder can bring to developing new technologies for advanced computing. She believes that when resources are combined, what emerges is not only beneficial for all parties but often exceeds the results that any one organization could have achieved alone.

“Each stakeholder brings something unique to a problem,” she explained. “Academia will provide curious minds eager to work on a problem with a professional network to help them grow. Government agencies typically offer funded challenges that drive academia. Technology providers offer resources like funding and access to consulting. Finally, industry can bring real-world challenges and its subject matter expertise.”

With the HPC market continuing its steady rise and expected to reach nearly US$56 billion by 2028, it’s no wonder that schools and organizations all over the world are looking to encourage more women to join the field. A 2020 study by—a non-profit that builds upon the work of Anita Borg, a pioneer in the HPC industry, to recruit and advance women in technology—found that overall representation of women in tech has been increasing steadily and was up 2.9 percent since 2018.

As we continue to understand the trends, highlight the trailblazers and encourage aspiring young computer scientists, researchers like Dr. Freda Lim and Dr. Christine Ouyang represent powerful examples of the success that can be achieved in the HPC space—no matter your gender.

This article was first published in the print version of Supercomputing Asia, January 2022.
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Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine. Illustration: Oi Keat Lam/Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jill Arul graduated with a degree in Communication Studies from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, with a keen interest for science and a passion for storytelling.

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