A new career panel series kicked off on June 10 with a session featuring women in management and leadership roles primarily from LLNL’s Computing Directorate. Inspired by the annual Women in Data Science (WiDS) conference and sponsored by the Data Science Institute (DSI), the panel session was open to LLNL staff and students.

Data scientist and panel series organizer Cindy Gonzales stated, “I was so inspired when I heard the WiDS speakers and panelists share their journeys this year. We realized the value of sharing employee journeys to provide advice as well as highlight different career paths at the Lab.”

Computing workforce manager Marisol Gamboa served as moderator. Panelists were Jessie Gaylord, leader of the Global Security Computing Applications Division (GS-CAD); Katie Lewis, associate division leader for Computational Physics in the Design Physics Division of LLNL’s Weapons and Complex Integration (WCI) Principal Associate Directorate; Celeste Matarazzo, a research principal investigator in LLNL’s Center for Applied Scientific Computing (CASC); and Kathryn Mohror, group leader for Parallel Systems in CASC.

The panelists discussed their career paths at the Lab and in Computing, navigating professional challenges, standing out as a job candidate, and advice for early-career women. Audience questions considered balancing work and life, continuing education, building confidence, finding mentors, and saying no to opportunities that are not a good fit.

Gamboa, who has more than 20 years’ experience in computer science, noted that the panelists’ diverse responses gave the audience much to consider. She also summarized the session’s common thread: “Everybody wants to serve and fill a gap, and everyone has a sense of passion about their work.”

An ‘Unconventional Entrance’ into Computer Science

Lewis, who came to the Lab in 1998 after college, said, “Because I liked math, I was told I could be an accountant or a math teacher.” Instead, she focused heavily on developing computer science skills during the final two years of her undergraduate degree and wrote a parallel differential equation solver while still in school. This experience led to a position in Computing working for WCI, later working at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). After this “unconventional entrance” into the field, Lewis now applies artificial intelligence techniques to high performance computing (HPC) simulations and has worked on geometry and mesh generation problems.

Matarazzo grew up in New York where her peers gravitated toward Wall Street. But when a high school field trip to Bell Labs opened her eyes to science careers, she knew she wanted to apply her skills in computer science, physics, and math to jobs that aligned with her interests—including an internship analyzing engine performance of the A-10 airplane. She noted, “I’ve always been driven by a passion for impact and giving back.” With 34 years at the Lab, Matarazzo currently leads a research team of more than 40 people and works on cyber security situational awareness and the application of data science to global security issues.

grid of panelists and moderators in video chat

Gaylord joined LLNL in 2004 after stepping away from a corporate career and moving to Livermore. “I planned to focus on family but soon found I really missed going to work, so I accepted a temporary job on the NIF construction project where I built databases and reporting applications,” she stated. As head of GS-CAD, Gaylord now manages 170 computer scientists, data analysts, software engineers, and system architects while also pursuing technical projects in nuclear nonproliferation research and data management.

Like the other panelists, Mohror “took a curvy path” to her computer science career. After growing up in a rural area with little exposure to computers, she was well into graduate studies in chemistry before having a chance to learn programming. Mohror recalled, “I was hooked. This is what I was supposed to do.” She switched fields in her late twenties, earned a PhD in Computer Science, and joined LLNL first as an intern and later as a postdoc. Her HPC research focuses on user-level file systems, scalable performance analysis, fault tolerance, and parallel programming paradigms.

‘Nobody Knows Everything’

The panelists offered a range of tips for building confidence in a range of scenarios—job interviews, presentations, meetings, and more—as well as overcoming challenges inherent in learning new technologies and skills. In addition to listening to what people say and how they say it, Mohror advised, “Take baby steps. Starting out in my career, I made a goal to contribute at least one idea in a meeting.”

Matarazzo emphasized the importance of preparation and finding advocates to provide feedback. For example, she explained, “I once received interview feedback that gave me insights about how others saw me—that I can take calculated risks and try something new.” Ultimately, she stated, “Bring your whole person to the interview. It’s important to show what kind of teammate and leader I will be alongside my technical abilities to contribute to the work.”

A common thread continued with self-awareness and a willingness to learn. For Lewis, a significant career hurdle has been acknowledging what she doesn’t know. At the Lab, she said, “There’s always someone in the room who knows more than you do on a subject.” Even so, Gaylord pointed out, “You can find something you feel confident in, no matter how small or narrow the topic. Then build on that until you are confident you have an important role.” Mohror added, “It took me a long time to realize that nobody knows everything. Once I learned to speak up and contribute, my career really changed.”

‘I Get to Decide My Future’

As their careers have evolved over their collective decades of experience, the panelists all realized the value of being true to themselves. Lewis stated, “I had a picture in my mind of what an engineer or scientist was supposed to be, and I tried to be that person. It took me a little while to give up those stereotypes and recognize that I was a scientist and engineer.”

Although she often felt she had to prove herself during her career, Gaylord noted, “I always thought I had something to offer—particularly technically—and could always find ways to exercise that.” She encouraged the audience to be willing to help others and strive to make even small differences. Additionally, Mohror advised the audience not to be afraid to ask for help—or for more responsibility.

A former president of LLNL’s Women’s Association, Matarazzo urged the audience to explore new avenues for gaining leadership and technical experience and noted that Employee Affinity Groups provided these opportunities early in her career. She also stated that being a lifelong learner and having an inquisitive personality have benefitted her career. Moreover, Matarazzo added, “I was almost derailed in my graduate studies when someone told me I shouldn’t be there because I was a woman. But I’ve since learned that I could follow my passion, and I get to decide my future.”

The career panel series will continue on July 15 in conjunction with Computing’s annual Developer Day, and feature panelists with software development and software engineering expertise. Additional panel sessions are planned for August and then quarterly after the summer. Along with Gonzales, the organizing committee includes DSI administrator Jen Bellig, data scientist Amar Saini, data scientist Mary Silva, and GS-CAD Bioinformatics group leader Marisa Torres.