On 14 March we welcomed two high school students to visit our group to learn about computational fusion research! Jana and Carlota were participants in the Escola Garbí Vergés Esplugues – Estada a Empresa (Company Visit) program, which connects students with local companies to learn more about professional skills and careers.
Computer Sciences researcher Sara Royuela proposed the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) as a partner with the school for this program and has been leading the initiative for the past two years. Sara Royuela has organized the week-long visits of four girls to meet staff from all different areas of the BSC. From 9-15 March 2023 the visit included meetings with about twenty different people representing various areas of the center including computer sciences, life sciences, earth sciences, computer applications in science and engineering, communications, and project management. Our group got to spend two hours with Jana and Carlota.
The “Estada a Empresa” program is mandatory for all first-year high-school students (16-17 year olds) at the Escola Garbí Vergés Esplugues, but the partnership with the BSC prioritizes visits especially for girls with an interest in STEM. This is one small yet impactful strategy for moving towards gender equity in STEM fields and at the BSC, where only 21% of researchers are women, according to the 2022 Gender Equity Plan.
What did we do together?
To keep the visit fun and engaging, we started by playing with some PhET simulations that explore concepts most similar to our focus areas within computational fusion research. For example, the States of Matter simulation provides a basic example of atomistic modeling, and serves as a useful stand-in for more complex molecular dynamics codes like LAMMPS in conversation with teenagers who haven’t yet practiced much computer programming. After playing with the States of Matter PhET simulation, it was easier to talk about computational fusion materials research as an extension of something approachable, visual, and interactive. It turns out that Jana and Carlota were already familiar with PhET simulations from their chemistry class, and they showed us how to use a simulation to practice Balancing Chemical Equations.
Next we watched a recording of a public science talk that two former members of our group, Marina García and Pol Pastells, gave in Catalan at the 2022 Festa de la Ciència (Science Festival) event in Barcelona. The talk served as a basic overview of computational fusion research to a broad audience in the first language of our visitors.
After taking in the Festa de la Ciència big picture perspective, we zoomed in on the day-to-day activities of computational fusion researchers. We led an interactive demonstration of accessing the supercomputers MareNostrum 4 and the Japan Fusion Reactor Simulator (JFRS-1), of creating input files and submitting jobs to the queue, of plotting data, and of compiling results for research meetings and publications. Because our visitors expressed an open-mindedness to different topics of research and a possible interest in biomedical engineering, we related each step to a more general scientific approach that they are sure to find in any field, such as posing a question and gathering relevant data.
The research demonstration led to discussion of career paths, and to questions about whether we enjoy our work, whether to pursue a PhD, funding opportunities, and the importance of writing papers. Jana and Carlota observed that many of the researchers they met at the BSC had PhDs, but that the decision to enroll in graduate school was still a long way off for them!
At the close of our time together, Jana and Carlota shared the following comment, “We learned about simulations and fusion, two topics we weren’t familiar with. Mary Kate and Tomás explained to us briefly about their work projects and experiences in the technological and research field. We really enjoyed this meeting and they were very nice.” From Tomás Bensadon and me (Mary Kate Chessey), we agree that we also really enjoyed the meeting!
What can you do?
If you are a student reading this and you have a chance to visit local companies, you might consider preparing to tell them about what kinds of activities you enjoy, what you enjoy learning about and how, your favorite classes, and your values (like equity, environmentalism, science communication, etc.). You might ask them about what skills are needed to work in their field and how to get those skills (especially if you haven’t learned them yet; programming is commonly needed but often not taught formally), how they prioritize values that are important to you (for example, what do they do to make a positive impact in the community?), what they like about their work, and anything else you’re curious about! It’s ok to have no idea about what they do before you meet them. The goal is to find out!
For researchers reading this who might be able to create opportunities for visitors, consider asking visitors what their school or workplace is like and what their interests and priorities are. Remember to listen and look for connections with your visitors; don’t just talk at them! Find out what might really be most interesting and useful to them.
Sara Royuela created this mutually beneficial partnership when her children’s school asked families for suggestions of companies to host students as part of the “Estada a Empresa” program. She saw an opportunity to create connections between women in STEM and girls who are still learning about the wide range of career options available to them. For researchers who would like to see something like this happen at your place of work too, consider coordinating with your colleagues to send an invitation to a local school!