Dr. Tomko serves as manager of the Scientific Applications group at the Ohio Supercomputer Center where she oversees deployment of software for data analytics, modeling and simulation. Her research interests are in the field of parallelization and performance improvement for High Performance Computing applications. She has been with OSC since 2007 and has collaborated with computational scientists for more than 25 years.
Learn more about Karen's leadership journey here:
As an undergraduate I learned that the playing field isn’t always level and that I have to advocate for myself. I came from a small high school that did not have any AP classes to a large research focused state school in a program where most of the students had been at the top of their HS class. I had really great classmates, and learned the value of working with, helping and asking for help from peers. It was also the first pivot on my career path. I had planned to major in Chemical Engineering but found that computing fit my brain better. I majored in Computer Engineering. About 30% of CE majors where women at that time (mid 80s). It was also my first experience in career networking; participating in SWE, IEEE-Computer Society, etc…
Entering the real world: I stayed in Ann Arbor, working as a Software Engineer for a few years, and I got married. Learned Unix/Linux. Gained software development experience. First realization that sexism was pervasive. My coping strategy was mostly to put blinders on and develop a thick skin so that I didn’t get emotionally derailed by the poor behavior of others. I had a good support network of women coworkers.
Graduate school at Univ. of Michigan: Very few women (10%) of incoming Computer Science and Engineering graduate students were women when I started. More diverse otherwise, with classmates from all over the US and the world. I shared an office with students from Taiwan, Pakistan, Jordan, India and Switzerland. I had supportive advisors and officemates and was overall surrounded by very talented people. There was a group of graduate women in CSE that met regularly. I found my passion, HPC! My dissertation research was in Parallel computing and software performance optimization. I was focused on developing my expertise, but I stumbled some both in classes and in research and had to overcome setbacks. I had my first child during grad school and finished my Ph.D. in 1995.
A member of the faculty: I had tenure track faculty positions at Wright State University and University of Cincinnati. About 10 years in total. Overall, it was a very busy time, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Teaching, establishing a research career, all while caring for young children. I didn’t have consistent mentoring or support during these years. Few women colleagues (only 3 tenure track women in the engineering college when I was at Wright State!) and again lots of bias. But I did have several good opportunities and got to collaborate with some very strong researchers on interdisciplinary projects. Two of the collaborations were led by really amazing women and leaders. However, the most important thing that I learned during that time was about failure and picking yourself up again. One of the students in my compiler class got a failing grade in the class and I was dreading the meeting with her to discuss it; she was a graduating senior and had a job lined up. When we met there was no drama or blame; she simply asked me about what her options were. She ended up retaking and passing the class as an independent study over the summer while starting work and was able to graduate. A few years later I was turned down for tenure, and I struggled to have the grace and grit that she showed.
Ohio Supercomputer Center: When I joined OSC I primarily worked on research projects: research software development and science gateway prototypes. I worked mostly remote, at a time when telecommuting was not common and not necessarily accepted. With the support of my boss, I advocated for and became the first manager of a new group focused on maintaining the “science stack” on our HPC systems (development tools, libraries, simulation & data analytics codes), the Scientific Applications team. I was assigned 1 employee initially and I also continued working on research collaborations. It was a big transition, learning how to manage, doing less technical work, proving myself and navigating politics. I had to be in the office more, with frequent long commutes. There were management transitions at OSC and some tight budget years. I also went through some personal losses. The group has matured but is still small and OSC is more stable. My team has been able to automate many of our processes and we have a steady stream of Research Software Engineering projects. Between supporting the HPC systems and the researchers there are always new technologies, challenges, and use cases which keeps it fun. I’ve also been able to be engaged with the HPC community nationally, participating in several organizations (CASC, CaRCC, Campus Champions, US-RSE) and co-organizing a workshop at SC our community’s biggest conference. I’m starting to change my focus from establishing and leading a group, to learning how to mentor the next leaders. I’m still often the only woman or one of the few women in the room at meetings and events. Let’s change that!
Learn more about our other HPC Heavy Hitters:
Arizona State University
Texas Advanced Computing Center
Carol X. Song