June/July 2009

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Mentors at Work

Dr Cecilia Aragon & friends launch Latinas in Computing

This lively group is fighting the double whammy of being women and Hispanics in the IT field

Being both a woman and Hispanic can make it difficult for an IT pro to fit in, even with really great qualifications. Professional women as a group are nearly all white and non-Hispanic. Hispanics in technical fields are nearly all men. So what’s a Latina to do?

Two-plus years ago a group of female Hispanic techies found each other, put together their own group and came out fighting! It happened at the 2006 Grace Hopper Celebration put on by the Anita Borg Institute (ABI). A Hopper “birds of a feather” session brought together about twenty Latinas, and Latinas in Computing (LIC) was born.

Getting started
Founders of the group include Dr. Gilda Garreton, a senior staff engineer for Sun Microsystems Laboratories (Menlo Park, CA), Dr Cecilia Aragon, a CS researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley, CA), and Dr Dilma Da Silva of IBM’s T. J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown Heights, NY). Garreton collected email addresses and set up contacts, and went on to become the de-facto leader of the group, with assistance from Aragon, da Silva, and others, including Claris Castillo, who was a student when she first joined LIC.

Now the women get together at www.anitaborg.org/initiatives/systers/lic. The site is hosted by ABI: “ABI has given us a home,” Aragon notes with appreciation. Another site has been developed at MentorNet, the e-mentoring organization: www.mentornet.net/lic.

Cecilia Aragon: like coming home
Aragon struggled with discrimination issues along the way to earning her PhD and finding her professional niche. Non-Hispanic women colleagues didn’t fully understand her cultural background, and Hispanic men were unsympathetic to her feelings of isolation as a woman.

The emotionality, intensity and passion inherent in her culture worked against her professionally. For example, Aragon soon learned that crying at school or work would be considered a personal failing.

“Cultural differences really do matter,” she says. “It’s okay to be a little different, express a different cultural background, but not too much. But sometimes you have to recharge. It’s like coming home to be part of this group!”

Aragon earned her BS with honors in math at the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA) in 1982. She went to the University of California-Berkeley for her 1987 MSCS. Then she began a doctoral program and completed the coursework, but stalled on the dissertation. It was fourteen years before she returned to it.

Swept into flying
One reason for the delay: Aragon had discovered a passion even beyond the PhD. She was distracted by flying.

Timid in her personal life, she was swept into the air after a flight in a small plane. Although she was afraid of heights and terrified of taking the controls at first, she overcame her fear and learned to fly a small plane herself, and went on to become an aerobatic pilot. Eventually she won a slot on the United States Aerobatic Team, and represented the U.S. at the World Aerobatic Championships, the Olympics of flying. She helped her team win a bronze medal, and came out with the individual award of best aerobatic performer.

“Fear can be a good thing,” she says. “It keeps you safe. I’ve had 5,000 hours of accident-free flight time. I’ve also spotted problems on the ground that could have caused an accident.”

Aragon started a business to help people overcome their fear of flying. “I went from being a very shy person to someone who is willing to fly an airplane toward the ground at 200 miles per hour,” she says.

She married another workaholic engineer and had two children. She sold her business with a tidy ROI and started to think about returning to school to finish that PhD. But she found her personal equation had changed.

“I didn’t have the luxury of working 100-hour weeks at school,” she says. “I had to come home and refocus on my family, so my study time had to become much more efficient.”

Support system
One thing remained the same: she was still one of the few Latinas in the Berkeley CS department. Many professors and other students were supportive, but not all. Although the professor she’d worked with earlier had left, a new woman professor, Marti Hearst, had joined the faculty in the interim. That was a very good thing.

“Having her there to push me when needed and back me up when there were problems made a tremendous difference,” Aragon says. “She held me accountable to produce really excellent original research.”

Aragon’s husband was and is another significant part of her support system. Beyond helping with home and child care, he shares her interest in algorithms and software. He’s written papers and secured patents, so the partners are both involved in creative research and understand each other’s work.

“Both of us find that the work the other person has done has helped in our own work,” she says.

The new Dr Aragon at Lawrence Berkeley Lab
Aragon completed her PhD in 2004 and joined Lawrence Berkeley Lab in 2005. She loves being at the cutting edge, in research that may involve reducing carbon emissions on Earth, or understanding the universe.

Her first work focused on developing a software system to make sense out of the growing amount of astrophysics data. The result was Project Sunfall, a collaborative workflow management system for supernova astrophysics. The highly successful system was reported on at the American Astrophysical Society meeting in 2008.

The system has further applications for other areas in which information is being collected more rapidly than it can be managed. “This is the problem for the next decade,” she says. “Collaborative tools can help scientists develop insight. Novel computational methods can help them deal with their data.”

Studying the decline
The number of women in computer science is declining. This was a focus of discussion at the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2007, when Latinas in Computing got together for a second year. “The fact is that women don’t usually get chosen for the top positions in CS,” Aragon notes. “Capable women who start in CS and don’t see how they can get to the top might tend to move into a different career.”

Latinas in Computing is trying to fight the brain drain: the group participated in the 2008 Grace Hopper and will meet again at the 2009 conference in Tucson, AZ this fall. Aragon is also a member of MentorNet, and accepts speaking engagements when she can. And she’s involved with the Computing Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institutions, (CAHSI, www.cahsi.org), which works on programs to teach kids the skills they need to succeed in CS.

Dr Claris Castillo: a student founder
Latinas in Computing is helping students reach professional levels. Claris Castillo, PhD, became one of the first students in the founding group while she was still working on her 2008 doctorate at North Carolina State University. Her BSEE is from the University of Panama (Panama City, Panama), and she came to North Carolina State to earn her MSEE as well as her doctorate.

Castillo interned at the Hawthorne, NY lab of IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center and joined the lab when she completed her PhD. She’s currently a member of the middleware virtualization management group, working on resource allocation mechanisms for large-scale distributed systems. Latinas in Computing has provided welcome support in her transition to professional life.

“It was the conference calls that intimidated me,” she says. “In the beginning I could hardly talk on the phone.”

Her involvement with LIC has helped her develop leadership and networking as well as teleconferencing skills: keys to opening opportunities for her. As a new professional her work absorbs most of her attention, but she’s found time to help in planning activities with LIC and also at Grace Hopper.

The unwritten rules
LIC partners with the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc (GEM) to support students of color. For example, LIC members offer their advice to help Latinas improve their applications to grad school. Students who speak English as a second language may write applications that seem careless to the professors considering them, Aragon points out.

“There are a lot of unwritten rules you need to know to be successful, even outside of academics,” Aragon says. “That’s part of the reason I have such a passion for helping out. I have faced discrimination because of my race and gender, but it can be overcome with the right knowledge and attitude.”


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