Saturday, May 31, 2008

Career Day

Thanks to everybody for all your advice on career day. I gave a 30-minute presentation full of slides with interesting pictures. I began by asking who liked math. I got a show of a few hands. Then I said, "I'm glad that some people here like math. But for the rest of you, I have bad news. Any career is going to involve math to a greater or lesser degree. And generally speaking, the more math that's involved, the more money you'll make."

I had some pictures from popular television shows to get them interested. I asked them if anybody watched "Gray's Anatomy." There was a show of a few hands. "Well," I said. "What if you're a doctor and you prescribe 200 mg of a very potent medicine instead of 200 µg?"
I also had a picture from the show "CSI." Again, I asked if anyone liked that show. And then I asked what would happen if you were working on the very last DNA sample and you added 5 mL of solvent when you meant to add 50 µL? In both of these cases, knowledge of math is vital for job success.
Then I talked about my job. I told them about our supercomputers, giving the really cool numbers about how many flops* the machines do; our huge, expensive cooling system (capable of cooling 640 large houses); how much our power bill is ($5-7 million/year), etc.

And I told them about the science. I showed some pretty pictures of various applications, starting off with combustion. I asked who got to school today thanks to the power of internal combustion. There was some confusion, but after it was established that I was talking about engines, just about everyone raised their hands. Then I asked who had heard their parents complaining about the high price of gas lately. Everyone raised their hands for that one. Well, I said, that's because some of the best cars, such as mine, get maybe 30-40 mpg. But wouldn't it be cool if we could get more like 300 or 400 mpg? That's why we study combustion.

I ended the presentation by talking about my educational background and then what they could do if they were interested in a career like mine. I told them what sort of educational activities they should do but above all encouraged them to be persistent and don't let other people discourage them. I also showed a slide with pictures of some of the youngest and most attractive people I work with. In addition to being more visually appealing, they are more diverse, and it is part of my mission as a member of an underrepresented group in computer science to encourage students from underrepresented groups to join us. (I showed pictures of three people, two of whom were women, and two of whom were African-American.)

After my presentation was over, I got quite a few good questions. One joker asked something about my advanced age, but otherwise the students were genuinely curious. I felt that career day was a success and I'm grateful for all your advice.

* A flop (in addition to being a bad joke that nobody laughs at)** is a FLoating-point OPeration -- basically, any arithmetic operation involving numbers with decimal points, such as 1.1+1.1. Our big machine does 263 teraflops per second, or 263 trillion floating point operations per second. If everyone in the world were capable of doing one floating point operation per second, and we all worked together, it would take us nearly half a day to do what it takes this machine one second to do.

** Standard leadership computing facility tour guide joke.

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