High-energy physics collaboration develops an inclusive space for women in software

Feb. 15, 2023

by Allison Gasparini

In spite of many efforts over the years to diversify the landscape of various STEM fields, women remained stubbornly underrepresented in software. According to a 2022 report on gender diversity in software engineering, women accounted for merely 21 percent of software engineers in the United States.

At the IRIS-HEP collaboration, headquartered in the Princeton Institute for Computational Science & Engineering (PICSciE) at Princeton University, the current and next generation of women in software development are working together toward the future of high energy particle physics. Collectively, the women of IRIS-HEP are integral members of the software research and development efforts that aim to ensure the success of the future High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), the multinational particle collider which is exploring the fundamental questions of the universe.

Here, a grouping of women working with the IRIS-HEP collaboration share their thoughts on how to encourage more women to join software and the opportunities the collaboration provides to young researchers in the field.

Encouraging Women in Software

Fostering an inclusive and welcoming environment is a crucial step to prevent feelings of alienation in the workplace. Rocky Bala Garg, a postdoctoral researcher with Stanford University, has recognized an absence of role models for women and minorities in software. “Most of the role models that we see are men and we don’t see many popular role models for women and minorities in these fields,” she said. “This creates a visibility problem and it’s difficult for these people to envision themselves as having a career in software.” 

Bala Garg believes that putting women and minorities in crucial leadership roles would provide the role models which could be pivotal in encouraging others to enter the software field.

Rocky Bala Garg giving a presentation

Rocky Bala Garg giving a presentation at the Connecting the Dots Workshop organized by IRIS-HEP and PICSciE at Princeton University on June 2, 2022. Credit: Henry Schreiner, Princeton University.

Within the wider world of software environments, Oksana Shadura, a software engineer with the University of Nebraska, said that at IRIS-HEP there are “a lot of efforts to hire women as well as promote them.” 

Shadura believes the question of why women are so underrepresented in software is complex and without a single answer. The main thing, she said, is to provide an environment where women don’t feel like they have to choose between their career and family. “I noticed that at conferences in high energy physics we still have an issue that childcare facilities are not the default, for example,” Shadura said.

Oksana Shadura

Oksana Shadura. Photo credit: Noemi Caraban Gonzalez/CERN.

Ianna Osborne, a research software engineer with PICSciE and IRIS-HEP based at CERN, said that when she first went to university, she was shocked to find how drastically the women were outnumbered by men. Being the only girl in a group, “I felt whatever I did – be it either an achievement or a failure – was judged and then projected to the whole female gender,” said Osborne. She said she had to work extra hard to prove herself in a male dominated environment. “My confidence and abilities were tested.” 

When Osborne began working at CERN, she said it was “like a dream come true” to get the opportunity to work with many women scientists. “I still work hard, but I am generously rewarded with respect,” she said. “My work is appreciated and my ideas matter.”

Software engineer Ianna Osborne and CERN.

Software engineer Ianna Osborne in front of one of the massive particle detectors at the multinational physics facility CERN, and in the control room expecting the facility's first collisions. Credit: Ianna Osborne; CERN; and collage by PICSciE staff.

Elizabeth Sexton-Kennedy

Elizabeth Sexton-Kennedy. Photo credit: Fermilab.

Elizabeth Sexton-Kennedy, a computer science researcher at the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and member of the IRIS-HEP advisory board believes that representation for women in software develops in pockets. For example, she said, “If you have a female mentor in software and computing, your specific group might attract more women,” she said.

IRIS-HEP and Opportunity

The key to empowering women in software goes beyond just encouraging them to join a project. Once a collaboration has a young, diverse cohort of researchers, it’s important to provide them with opportunities for growth and success as they move along in their career.

In order to become a tenured professor, for example, a person must be doing excellent research. “And you need the resources to do it,” said Heather Gray, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. IRIS-HEP is among the types of projects which provide those resources to young researchers, allowing them to work on interesting problems in the field.

“IRIS-HEP is enabling science, which is helping people progress in their careers in ways they may not have otherwise,” said Gray.

Heather Gray, Associate Professor at the University of California
Heather Gray, Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, at a poster session with IRIS-HEP at Princeton’s Jadwin Hall in February 2018. Photo credit: Heather Gray.

At IRIS-HEP, Gray is working on rewriting software to recreate the trajectories of charged particles moving through the particle detector. With the newer technology behind the HL-LHC, it’s crucial that the software be fast enough for the upgraded facility. “Working on these algorithms is going to be critical if you want to do physics there,” said Gray.

Like Gray, Bala Garg is bringing innovation and new ideas to this particle track reconstruction software. “Track reconstruction is one of the most important parts of any high energy physics experiment because it helps in not just identifying the trajectories of particles but also some very crucial event properties,” said Bala Garg.

Bala Garg said she is particularly grateful for the opportunities IRIS-HEP has provided her to work with a range of experts in the field. Being a part of the international collaboration, she gets the opportunity to remotely interact with other researchers all over the world. “I get to learn a lot from these people,” she said. “This has been a very good experience for me.”

For her part, Shadura is working on development of an analysis facility featuring more efficient and faster data access for physics datasets used in high energy physics data analysis. “The goal of this facility is to provide a modern development environment for physicists and to enable the execution of increasingly complex analyses for the HL-LHC needs,” said Shadura.

Together, the IRIS-HEP researchers are propelling forward technology which will allow scientists to study elementary particles like the Higgs Boson in greater detail than before, with the goal of beginning data collection in 2029.

“The research that’s going into figuring out how physicists can actually access all that data in a meaningful way that can produce results worthy of all the spending to build the accelerator and the upgraded experiments – there’s a lot of good work going on in that area,” said Sexton-Kennedy.

IRIS-HEP fellowship programs allow for students to get involved in developing new ideas for research and software development. Bala Garg said she’s worked with a diverse array of fellows at IRIS-HEP over the last couple of years. Osborne said the number of women role models in IRIS-HEP is only on the rise.

“The IRIS-HEP fellowship program and its mentors – myself included – empower young women by recognising their character and achievements,” said Osborne. “I’m trying to give young girls the support and encouragement I myself so desperately needed earlier in my career.” Together, the mentors of IRIS-HEP are working together to champion, support and encourage young women still early on in their careers.  

“I would encourage everyone at the beginning of university to apply for an IRIS-HEP fellowship,” said Shadura. And in the end, Shadura has one last piece of advice for all girls looking to break into computer science and software development, “Just don’t give up, don’t listen to anybody, and join our army of female computer scientists.”