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Q&A with Roberto Camacho Barranco, XSEDE Student Ambassador

XSEDE Broadening Participation student volunteer finds path to dream job at Google through experience with XSEDE mentorship and Computing4Change programs.

What is your research background?

I'm currently a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). My doctoral thesis focuses on data analytics and data mining. Specifically, I'm working on automatic word modeling to study the semantic evolution of words in large temporal text corpora. The primary goal of my research is to identify potential connections between entities that are hidden in the data. I also have a master's degree in Computational Science and Engineering from the Technical University of Munich, where I focused on parallel optimization for high performance computing.

How and when did you get involved with XSEDE?

My first contact with XSEDE was through the XSEDE conference (now PEARC) in 2016. Dr. Pat Teller was my mentor and advisor throughout my master's thesis and the initial part of my Ph.D. studies. She encouraged me to submit a paper for publication at the conference. Fortunately, the paper was accepted, and I applied to be a volunteer at the conference.

As a volunteer, I met Dr. Kelly Gaither and Rosalia Gomez, who both encouraged me to apply for the first cohort of the Advanced Computing for Social Change Institute (ACSCI) challenge at SC16 in Denver. After participating in this challenge, I was invited to be a mentor for the next iteration of the program at SC17 and was fortunate enough to return as a mentor for the newly-minted ACM SIGHPC Computing4Change competition.

Recently, I was invited to join the team of instructors for the XSEDE Advanced Scientific Computing Python seminars that will be part of the NASA STEM-DIRECT program at California State University, Los Angeles.

What kinds of projects and students have you worked with?

One of the things I appreciate after being part of the ACSCI challenge and Computing4Change program is the diversity of backgrounds of the participants. Having such diversity encourages everyone to listen to different perspectives and to learn from the experience and knowledge of the other students. The goal of the challenge is to use computing, visualization, and data analysis as tools to raise awareness and suggest potential solutions to current social issues. The topics of the challenges that I've been a part of include the "Black Lives Matter" movement, immigration, and violence.

What kind of contribution do you usually make, and what kind of benefit does that have for students?

I have experience working as a data scientist and as a programmer, so I try to provide as much technical support as possible. However, my goal is not only to provide technical assistance but to guide the students based on my previous experience in these challenges and life. I help them focus on the problem at hand and structure their thought process. I usually try to figure out potential holes in their arguments and work with them on how to make sure they are well-prepared for their presentations. Ultimately, I hope that my mentees can transfer what they learn during the challenge into their own educational and professional life, always using critical thinking and taking into account the potential consequences of their work.

What project did you work on that you felt was particularly meaningful or successful?

I think the most meaningful challenge that I participated in was the Computing4Change event at  SC17. This event was important to me because it was the first time I was a mentor. Furthermore, the topic of that cohort was immigration, which hit very close to home because I live in a border city and my family recently immigrated. I was thrilled to be able to share some of my experiences and raise awareness of issues that we, as a borderland community, face every day.

What work do you do outside of XSEDE's Broadening Participation program? How does your volunteer work relate to your other work?

I am a research assistant at the Discovery Analytics Laboratory in UTEP. I think that my work has helped me gain the technical background and expertise to help students figure out which visualization to use and to clean up and process data. On the other hand, I think that participating in the XSEDE Broadening Participation programs has helped me change my perspective on the ultimate goal of data analytics. The first ACSCI challenge helped me understand that whatever I work on can have a significant impact on real-world problems, so I always think about the potential consequences (good and bad) of my work.

Is there a specific situation or student that stands out as being particularly meaningful?

Every person I have met throughout these experiences has had an impact on my life, but I have to say that the ones that I have a great connection with are my mentees. Working so hard together for three or four days helped create this extraordinary bond between us. I was delighted to see a couple of my mentees come back as mentors for the Computing4Change competition last November. They did a great job, and I am very proud of them!

What lifelong skills do you hope students learn from these experiences?

I hope that the students learn the importance of data and the enormous responsibility we have when we use it to support a claim. I try to teach my mentees to identify the reliability of the data based on their source. Another critical point that I always stress is to be aware that many datasets are inherently, and most of the times inadvertently biased, so it is essential to identify these biases and clarify the scope of the claims. I also hope that students have an increased awareness of the current social issues and a higher empathy for people that are affected by these issues. Being aware of the problem is the first step towards solving it.

Were you ever mentored in high school or as an undergraduate?

I never had a mentor until I met Dr. Pat Teller towards the end of my master's studies. She has been a great source of support and guidance for which I am extremely grateful, and I have learned so much from her. After Dr. Teller retired, I started working with Dr. M. Shahriar Hossain, who is my current advisor. He has been extremely supportive, and as an expert in data mining, his experience and knowledge have been crucial for my development as a data scientist.

During my work with the XSEDE Broadening Participation programs I have had many mentors, and I have learned so much from them. In particular, Linda Akli, Rosalia Gomez, Dr. Kelly Gaither, Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, and Sue Fratkin have been a continuous source of inspiration, and they have helped me grow as a person and as a mentor.

Why did you choose Computer Science as your area of study for your Ph.D.?

When I started my education in Mexico, I was not exposed to computer programming until I was in high school, where I had two courses about C-programming. Both courses were elementary, which resulted in me getting bored, so I erroneously assumed that programming, in general, was boring. Thus, when it was time to decide which major I would pursue, I decided to study Industrial Engineering. It wasn't until the third semester that I had a real computer science class. I was so intrigued by the power of computing that I decided to change my major to Mechatronics Engineering, mainly because it had three more programming-related courses and it was the closest major to computer science at my university. Furthermore, many of the courses in the last semesters of the degree were project-based, and in all my teams I played the role of the programmer, which allowed me to learn more on my own and learn to love coding.

After graduating with my bachelor's degree at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, I worked for two years as a systems integration test engineer and one year as an embedded software developer. I obtained a scholarship to study a Master's in Computational Science and Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, where I discovered the power of high-performance computing and the vast impact that large-scale computing can have in solving problems in areas fundamental for the forward progress of society. Thus, I decided to start my doctoral studies in Computer Science so I could help enhance the technologies that enable these discoveries.

What will you do after receiving your PhD?

I accepted a Software Engineering position at the Google campus in Boulder for which I am incredibly excited! It was always my dream to work at Google, but to be completely honest I always considered it just that, a dream. That changed when I talked with a Google representative that visited my school and convinced me to apply for an internship. I was an intern there for the past two summers, and I can't wait to start working there this year.