Faces of HPC: Larisa Stoltzfus
Larisa Stoltzfus is a Ph.D student in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, bringing together her physics and computer science backgrounds with her love for HPC.
Larisa Stoltzfus started her career in biotechnology and then oil and gas before returning to University to study a Masters degree in HPC. On completing her MSc, Larisa moved to London to use her HPC skills in finance, but has recently returned to the University of Edinburgh Pervasive Parallelism programme to study a PhD that brings together music, physics and HPC.
Tell a bit about yourself – where you’re from, what you’ve studied and where, and what some of your outside interests are.
I grew up in Louisiana, USA, but have lived all over the States and in Britain and other parts of Europe for just over a third of my life. I originally studied physics with a secondary interest in computer science at a tiny liberal arts college in the US Midwest. I then worked in London as a software engineer for several years in biotech and oil and gas before going back to university to do the HPC MSc with EPCC at the University of Edinburgh. I then went back to London to work in finance for two years before moving back to Edinburgh to do a PhD in pervasive parallelism.
When I'm not programming I enjoy: climbing, cycling, hiking, playing the piano, drinking original cask single malt whisky and playing a mean game of scrabble.
What is your current job? Describe what you do in HPC. Is this your main interest, or something you fell into?
I’m currently a PhD student. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do -in particular a project bridging physics and computing - and although I kind of fell into my current role I am very happy with it.
My research involves developing portable, performant and programmable solutions for HPC simulations like room acoustics models.
How did you become interested in HPC? Briefly describe your path into HPC.
I have always been interested in science as a kid and then computational physics as I approached university – the idea of building simulations to test theories or make predictions has always fascinated me. As an undergraduate, I worked on a number of modelling projects and wanted to pursue a PhD straight after. Life got in the way, but I’m pursuing that PhD now! In the meantime, I’ve worked as a scientific programmer, so it’s been a long path, but a very scenic one and not totally divergent.
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?’
It would be nice to see more diversity in computing and HPC in particular. I always feel a bit out of place when I walk into a meeting room and it’s just all white men (which is most of the time). When there are more women around I definitely feel more confident about who I am and what I’m doing even though I’ve been working in male-dominated fields for 12 years now.
Is there something about you that’s given you a unique or creative approach to what you do?
Oddly, I think being an American in Britain has made my career much easier. I feel like relatively speaking I’m much more of an introvert in America, but over here I think come across as more confident than I am.
I also think having done my first degree in liberal arts has helped shape my world differently. I love writing and editing papers, for example, which many of my peers don’t.
Were there any challenges when you first entered the field? How have you overcome these, or do they continue to challenge you?
I’m not particularly good at maths and never have been. As such, physics has always been a struggle for me, but the end result was so rewarding that I kept at it. I still struggle with maths, but at least I know how to approach it a bit better. Programming comes much more naturally to me.
What’s the best thing about working in HPC?
The variety of projects and fields that intersect. I hate the idea of working only in one small niche field for the rest of my life. Being in HPC means that once you have a set of skills you can easily transfer them across the board.
If there’s one thing about HPC you could change, what would it be?
I feel like the HPC community can be slow to adopt new technology.
What’s next for you in HPC – where does your career lead you?
As much as I like the freedom in academia, I am probably heading back into industry next - but I’m keeping an open-mind!
Larisa Stoltzfus was interviewed by Toni Collis on 4 January 2016.