While the number of women working in information technology (IT) is slowly growing, there is still a definite gender gap in the field, particularly in network engineering and high-performance computing.

With that in mind, the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) created the Women in IT Networking at Supercomputing (WINS) program in 2015.

WINS is funded by National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy/Energy Sciences Network (ESnet). Each year the program selects five to eight qualified candidates from early to mid-career applicants across the country to join the volunteer workforce in constructing SCinet, the Supercomputing Conference’s dedicated high-performance research network. In 2017, Tania Jareen, a network engineer at Purdue University and I-Light member, was one of the lucky few to be chosen.

Jareen first learned about the program through an outreach email from I-Light. “I didn’t know about the WINS program, so I Googled it,” Jareen explained. “I found out that it was a great program for women to gain experience working with cutting-edge technologies, so I applied for it, and I got it.”

From a young age, Jareen’s parents supported and motivated her to study, and encouraged her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I was interested in computing and technology when I was a child,” she said. “I first started using computers around grade 4, and I knew I wanted to be an engineer.”

As an undergraduate student in her home country of Bangladesh, Jareen was one of only eight women out of 120 students in the electrical engineering department. She found a similar situation when she came to the United States to obtain her master’s degree in electrical engineering at Wichita State University.

“I definitely see that there are very few women in our field,” Jareen said. “I started my career as a network operations engineer at Cox Communication where there were also very few women.” She does see signs that things are changing, though. “When I started at Purdue, I was the only [female network engineer]. Now there’s another woman here, so now we are two-it’s increasing,” she laughed.

Jareen was thrilled to have the opportunity to take part in the Supercomputing Conference (SC), an annual event focusing on high performance computing (HPC) and communication technologies.

“It was a great experience,” she related. “We used a lot of different vendors and devices. In my day-to-day work at Purdue I don’t get to do that, so that’s really good learning on the technical perspective.” Jareen also enjoyed the ability to work side-by-side with experts in her field, including many of the most well-known in the research and education community. “It’s not just the technical aspects, but the people who are working there,” she said. “You’re extending your professional contacts and there’s also a great opportunity to learn.”

SCinet is made up of 15 teams, each with a specific focus on an area of expertise needed to create a research network. WINS participants are assigned to a team and a mentor-applicants can request a particular area, although they may end up assigned to something different. “The routing group was my first choice, and I was lucky to get that one,” Jareen said. She also felt that the experts from her team created a cooperative space for the WINS participants. “I never hesitated to ask a question, because everyone knew that we were there to learn,” she said.

Jareen put in an impressive number of hours as part of SC17. She traveled to Denver to take part in the staging of the conference site, went home to Purdue, and then returned to assist with the set up and the actual conference. And spending that much time with the routing team enabled the formation of some lasting friendships.

“Our team was very friendly,” Jareen said. Each day began with greetings and discussions of their work, with team members helping each other work through any problems. “We were divided into two groups, but we would go to lunch and dinner together,” Jareen said. Evenings were spent in their hotel, with time for socializing and entertainment.

The connections made at SC17 are still strong, Jareen said. And not surprisingly, they’re staying connected through technology. “We have a Slack channel for chatting with our team,” Jareen said. “Any time anyone faces any issue, a configuration issue or anything in their day-to-day job, they can post it there. Other experts are there so they can give you some thoughts about how to solve things.”

Caroline Weilhamer, manager of operations for I-Light and Indiana GigaPOP, served as co-chair of the Network Research exhibition at SC17, where she worked with Tania. “After participating in SC17, what Tania brings back to Purdue is priceless in terms of employee education and reinvestment,” Weilhamer said. “We need to continue to reach women in IT and we are thankful that one of our own members was fortunate enough to experience the WINS program.”

The WINS program was an overwhelmingly positive experience for Jareen, and she hopes to attend again. She also encourages other women in the field to apply. “If I get the chance to talk to other women engineers, I always encourage them to apply for this program,” she said. “It’s a great program, and you’ll get really good exposure [to vendors and technology], exclusive hands-on experience, and you’ll extend your professional contacts with experts.”

Learn more about WINS and apply for consideration for SC18 >>