Pacific News

Pacific Fields All-Woman Team in Global Supercomputing Competition

"Team Venus" captured attention as the only all-woman team in the annual Supercomputing Conference (SC12) Student Cluster Competition (SCC) in Salt Lake City earlier this year.
Photo by Randall Gee

Selected for Team Venus were (from left front) Nichelle Dismer ’13, computer science; Jessica Dudoff ’14, engineering physics and applied mathematics; Stephanie Labasan ’13, computer engineering; Camila Carvajal ’14, computer science; (back left to right) Phuong Pham ’15, computer science and applied mathematics; and Theresa Cruz ’14, computer engineering.

Patrick GiblinDec 6, 2012
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When a group of University of the Pacific students entered the annual Supercomputing Conference (SC12) Student Cluster Competition (SCC) in Salt Lake City earlier this year, they faced tough odds.

The competition attracts students from across the globe, hailing from elite engineering and science schools such as the University of Texas at Austin, MIT, Purdue, Boston University, and University of Science and Technology of China. Pacific had never before competed in the event that showcases young computing talent.

By the time the smoke cleared -- quite literally -- Team Venus, the name adopted by Pacific's students, made history: They had become the first all-female team in the prestigious contest to design, assemble and run prescribed applications on an energy-efficient computer cluster.

"This is a phenomenal experience for our students as they get the hands-on experience of designing and testing hardware on the spot," said Professor Louise Stark, who accompanied the students and team manager Professor Jeff Shafer to the competition. "They did really well throughout the event, which means they are more likely to be sought out by employers."

Team Venus Video

Watch Team Venus discuss how they were able to enter the Student Cluster Challenge because of the help and attention they got from faculty at Pacific. more

Against Some Super Competition

The 24-year-old Supercomputing Conference is an annual convention that brings together leaders in high-performance computing from government, academia and industry. The conference delves into high-performance computing and its application and offers demonstrations of the state of the art in computing, networking, storage and analysis. This year's conference attracted more than 9,000 attendees from around world.

The student competition started seven years ago, and this year, only eight teams of six members were accepted to compete. Team members had to be either enrolled in high school or as a college undergraduate.

Because the number of competitors is so limited, some groups recruit members from multiple colleges to increase their chances of success. For example, the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center team included students from Boston College, MIT, Harvard and the University of Massachussetts. Other teams drew from National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan; National University of Defense Technology, China; Purdue University; Texas Tech University; University of Science and Technology of China; and the University of Texas at Austin.

Each student team sets up a small cluster supercomputer. Then it has 47 hours to operate six pre-selected programs that run scientific simulations and measure computer performance of the system. The students must produce specific visual data, such as 3D animations, which are evaluated by competition judges. This year, a contest rule dictated that each computer could not draw more than 26 amps of power at any time, about the same amount used by three coffee makers.

The Birth of Venus

The idea for entering an all-female team at SC12 was the brainchild of Tony Baylis, a computation program manager at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), which develops and applies cutting-edge science and technology to enhance national security. He initially planned to recruit students from numerous western universities.

"I approached Pacific first because I had worked with its students and faculty before and was impressed with the caliber of the students, faculty and programs," Baylis said. "After talking to (Professor) Rebecca Mich at Pacific, she convinced me that I need not look any further at other institutions to field an all-female team because she could assemble a team for me."

Numerous science and engineering students applied for the team. Selected were Camila Carvajal '14, computer science; Theresa Cruz '14, computer engineering; Nichelle Dismer '13, computer science; Jessica Dudoff '14, engineering physics and applied mathematics; Stephanie Labasan '13, computer engineering; and Phuong Pham '15, computer science and applied mathematics. Several other Pacific students also trained and optimized scientific applications with the team, including Caroline Dozsa '12, electrical engineering; Kathleen Shoga '15, computer science; and Justine Tang '14, physics.

During a nine-month period, the students learned everything they could about supercomputers, from running the scientific applications to regulating cooling and power consumption, with a lot of help from Pacific professors and LLNL staff.

"Professor Shafer took time to set up weekly meetings to talk about how to set up an application," said Camila Carvajal '14, a computer science major. "He also helped us debug the system and got the information from SC12 that we needed in order to teach us. Without the help, I don't know where we would have been in the competition."

"There were several other professors who helped, especially Professor Stark, and we could email or text all the professors at any time about questions and strategies," added Jessica Dudoff '14, who is studying engineering physics and applied mathematics. "The faculty was instrumental in all of this."

Robin Goldstone, a LLNL senior computer scientist, arranged for an equipment donation from Appro computers, installed it at Lawrence Livermore and gave Team Venus access. Goldstone also helped install and configure software, and acted as a sounding board for the team when they were stumped by software and hardware problems.

"We used a lot of Livermore software systems, went to classes at Livermore and were given access passes," said Dudoff. "When our computer was shipped to SC, they gave us access to some of their own computers so we could continue working."

The Talk of the Town

The team members arrived in Salt Lake City on Saturday, November 10 and quickly became a hot topic on the convention floor.

"There were only three other women there, so everyone assumed we were an all women's school," Dudoff said. "It's a logical assumption. For a small school, we had a lot of women interested in computing."

By Sunday, Team Venus had assembled their computer and loaded software. And then they ran into their first big problem.

"We were running data on Sunday when a power supply exploded. That was a setback for us," said Phuong Pham '15, a computer science and applied mathematics major. "There was some smoke and a funny smell. But fortunately, Appro had an extra and helped us out."

On Monday, the team ran tests from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., working out bugs along the way. Professors Stark and Shafer were not allowed to help.

At 5:30 p.m. Team Venus was given data and told what reports and images to produce. For the next 47 hours, the computer was monitored constantly by the students.

After the first round of data was analyzed Wednesday, Team Venus learned that one test showed they had the fourth fastest computer on the floor, an amazing achievement for a group that had never been to the competition before.

"We were pretty excited and pretty proud, because we didn't have the (graphics) accelerators that other teams did," Dudoff said. "It really gave us a lot of hope because we didn't know what we would be facing. Schools like Purdue have been in the competition every year, so we were excited to see that we were in there and we belonged."

Engineering Professor Jeff Shafer and Associate Dean Louise Stark mentored Team Venus throughout the training and preparation for SC12

Though they didn't earn any gold medals, by the end of the contest, they had been interviewed by numerous news organizations for being the first all-female team in the SCC.

The team members said that Pacific will compete again next year, and that their experience will surely help the members of Team Venus '13. They also added that none of it would have been possible without the resources available at Pacific.

"Without coming to Pacific, I don't think I could have attended a conference like that and compete," said Nichelle Dismer '13, a computer science major. "At Pacific, the professors know your name, have your phone number and sometimes invite you over for dinner. The professors know your interest and call you and let you know about these opportunities.

"I appreciate that."