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Faces of HPC: Catherine Woodford

Catherine Woodford is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Her work focuses on binary black hole simulations, exoplanet ice models and atmosphere simulation.


Catherine Woodford grew up in Newfoundland, Canada and started out with a Bachelors degree in Physics and Applied Mathematics at Memorial University. Catherine has now embarked on a Ph.D. and has found her work requires more and more HPC as her studies have progressed with the development and utilisation of hybrid codes. Catherine particularly enjoys the opportunity to constantly improve the performance of her software.


Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Newfoundland, the eastern-most province in Canada and identify most with that culture. I studied at the Memorial University of Newfoundland from 2011-2015 and graduated with a BSc Honours in Physics and Applied Mathematics. I worked in several labs, including fluid dynamics in geophysics, self-probe force microscopy and lab equipment programming in chemistry, and N-body modelling for globular clusters in physics.

My favourite studies involved gravity and general relativity, which lead me to my current endeavour of a PhD in physics at the University of Toronto. At U of T, I work in two different groups. One group is the Gravity Group, where I run simulations of binary black holes and analyse the results of the situations to compare to analytics and to formulate better post-processing techniques. The other is in exoplanet modelling, where I use third party codes to simulate ice sheets and use the results to draw conclusions about planetary spin.

While at the University of Toronto, I’ve found that I love science outreach and education. I’m heavily involved with the department of Physics and CITA outreach endeavours, involving running workshops in summer camps, visiting and giving talks at high schools, public lectures, and Girls in STEM workshops. I also work with the Dunlap Institute as a planetarium operator and at the Abelard High School as a part-time computer science teacher.

Outside of work and research, I invest most of my spare time into volunteer activities. I am currently the vice president of the Rotaract Club of Toronto and partake mostly in community service events. When it does allow, I love reading horror novels, playing video games, snowboarding, and running. One of my central extra-curriculars is martial arts, and I’m currently studying Wing Chun Kung-Fu.

What is your current job?

I’m currently a graduate student (mostly), and technically my field is computational astrophysics. I use various HPC things and ideas at almost all levels of my research. The codes that we use in my group requires huge amounts of processing power and time to complete, with even hybrid parallelization across multiple nodes causing some simulations to take months to run. Being able to run, analyse, and restart crashes from our codes requires an intimate knowledge of the HPC system we’re running on, and also being able to guess a starting point for the resources you might need for any given simulation.

My research requires a significant amount of code writing as well, and an expectation for codes to be scalable to larger systems. HPC is a part of my research, or at least that’s how it started. I’m finding that the more I work in scientific computing, the more I like the HPC side of things.

As part of this project we want to celebrate the diversity of HPC, in particular to promote equality across the nine “protected” characteristics of the UK Equality Act, which are replicated in world-wide equality legislation. Do you feel an affiliation with this matter, and if so how has this interacted with or impacted your job in the HPC community?’

I do feel an affiliation with this matter, and fall into the disability category. While I haven’t found any negative interactions with my work or study per sea, I have found that identifying with this characteristic and not being afraid to do so has opened the door for other people in the HPC community to come forward and discuss their difficulty with disability in the field.

What’s the best thing about working in HPC?

There’s always more work to do – whatever code you write, there will always be a way to improve upon it at some point or another. There’s constantly more methods, better technology, new versions, or just a difference in thinking that can change how you do things and lead you to reworking previous projects or codes.

If there’s one thing about HPC you could change, what would it be?

I’m not sure there is anything I would change at this point, but I’m also fairly new to the field. I suppose one thing I would like to see change is the public and even academic awareness of the importance of HPC in research.

What’s next for you in HPC – where does your career lead you?

I would like to stay involved with HPC at the very least. What that means for me at this point I don’t know, as I have a little more than 2 years left in my PhD. One option that I would like to investigate is working for a HPC group, like SciNET in Canada, that is still heavily involved in assisting with scientific computing, outreach, and education.

Last updated: 06 Oct 2017 at 16:07