Help us build the STEM-Trek Gap Fund!

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What’s a gap fund?

STEM-Trek’s gap fund will supplement general travel awards from nonprofits, like STEM-Trek, government agencies, or technical conferences that sponsor high performance computing (HPC), data science and software development training programs. Supplement awards bridge financial gaps that might otherwise cause economic hardship when employees or students take time away from their daily obligations to attend a conference, workshop or other professional development opportunity.

Who qualifies?

Applications are welcome at any time from HPC-curious scholars (ages 21-99) who feel like they can’t afford to take time off to train, and are therefore reluctant to apply for travel grants.

It’s easy to apply! Six weeks or more before the activity, applicants should submit a letter of interest to that describes the need, a budget, letter of recommendation from a non-family associate who is familiar with the applicant’s financial situation and training goals, and a 300-word essay describing how the applicant intends to pay-it-forward by helping others, or by contributing in a meaningful way that helps STEM-Trek achieve its goals. They also agree to write a 300-word impact statement within two weeks after the activity concludes.

Applications will be reviewed by volunteer STEM-Trek HPC education and outreach specialists. Meritorious proposals will be awarded asap, as funds allow.

Father and child with stickFollowing are examples of meritorious need:

  • Child and eldercare: According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA), the average cost of center-based, licensed daycare for children in the United States is close to $12,000 per year; eldercare costs can be twice as much. A gap award would cover licensed caregiver fees so scholars can take time off from their daily obligations knowing that loved ones are in good hands while they’re away from home.
  • Lost wages: In today’s economy, it’s not unusual for people to be over-employed; many hold two or more jobs, and some don’t have vacation benefits. A gap award would replace wages lost while training.
  • Back-fill: Many colleges and universities operate “one deep” in tech and teaching roles, and employees are hesitant to take time away for fear conditions will deteriorate in their absence. A gap award would support a student or temporary employee to fill in while they’re away.
  • Job skills retraining: Some work such long hours they can’t take time off to train. Others were laid off from manufacturing careers and would benefit from training that would lead to a technical certification. Veterans would benefit from improved technical skills, but might also hesitate to take time off from their job search, or employment.
  • Other: There will be unique cases that merit individual consideration, and each will help us further develop the program.

Here are suggested pay-it-forward examples, and we’re always open to suggestions!

  • Create an app that helps faculty, students and staff (with a .edu email) find local daycare and eldercare back-up options. It could work like VarageSale to draw from public data on Facebook or another social media platform, by region and/or community.
  • Attend a local career fair and present on the topic of STEM fields.
  • Volunteer to serve as a STEM-Trek application or content reviewer.

Photo by Elizabeth Leake, STEM-Trek. Taken at the UrbanCCD meeting at UChicago, 2016.If you fund it, they will come! Please donate to the STEM-Trek Gap Fund today…

Platinum Sponsor: $25,000

This donation would support approximately 15 “gaps” for scholars who will attend SIAM-CSE, PEARC, SC or another technical conference. In-kind donations of goods and services of this value also qualify. Your generosity will be recognized in communications collateral, including web-based, print and social media messages. Your logo will be more prominent than all others.

Gold Sponsor: $10,000

Six HPC-curious scholars would have their gaps bridged with this generous donation. Donations would be acknowledged in communications collateral, including web-based, and social media messages. In-kind donations of goods and services of this value also qualify.

Silver Sponsor: $5,000

This could be applied toward the Gap Fund program, or to sponsor a catered meal, reception or advertising specialties that promote the program (fundraising and identity). Donations would be acknowledged in communications collateral, including web-based, and social media messages. In-kind donations of goods and services of this value also qualify.

STEM-Trek Friend: $10.00 to $4,999!

All donations are welcome and will be put to good use. Small donations can be made through our PayPal account. To make a larger donation, please send an email to with the amount of your pledge, and mail a check payable to “STEM-Trek Nonprofit (Gap Fund),” to STEM-Trek, P.O. Box 503, Sycamore, Illinois 60178. If you prefer to deposit your donation directly into our bank account, please contact for instructions. STEM-Trek is a public charity, 501.c.3 (EIN: 37-1693059).

Thank you for your consideration!!

Background & Research

STEM-Trek Nonprofit is a public charity (501.c.3) that was founded in 2012 to support travel-related professional development activities for early-career science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) scholars. We typically help HPC-curious from groups and regions that are underrepresented in their use of advanced cyberinfrastructure (CI).

We intend to dispel the myth that STEM travel is a luxury. Arguably, it’s a necessity!

Early-career employees benefit from attending workshops and conferences where they will learn about the latest technologies, trends and methods, and build professional networks. While online courses are better than nothing, they can’t offer insights into another culture, or build interpersonal relationships the way synchronous training with a cohort does.

Conference travel is invigorating, and those who work in resource-constrained environments need recharging more than anyone since they wear more hats, and work longer hours. Visiting new places fosters creativity, multicultural understanding and science diplomacy. Unfortunately, federal funding agencies have slashed budgets; travel and conferencing were low-hanging fruit, and the first line items to be trimmed. Travel support for junior personnel who work at poorer colleges and universities is least likely to be approved. Their inability to train and maintain relevant skills contributes to workplace frustration and flight risk.

At the same time, we’re facing a national crisis—there’s a critical shortage of skilled personnel who can support research computing. At the 2016 Advancing Research Computing on Campuses (ARCC) conference at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Chief Information Officers, Vice Presidents for Research Computing, and HPC Center Directors from across the nation met to discuss current trends and realities associated with supporting research computing.

Discussions following an ARCC panel titled “A New Career Path: The Cyberinfrastructure Professional,” revealed how difficult it has become for colleges and universities to recruit and retain skilled personnel, including computational domain specialists, systems administrators and software developers. Commercial enterprises often pay twice as much, and are predatory in their recruiting practices. They actively target university personnel who might feel as though their career trajectories have stalled in a university environment. State benefit packages aren’t the carrot they once were, and few offer raises to keep up with the cost of living. Consequently, university vacancies can be open for months before a qualified replacement can be found (or longer in economically- or geographically-undesirable locations).

When university-based HPC centers lack adequate personnel, the educational mission also suffers. In addition to maintaining HPC systems, public-sector technicians support research faculty and students in the use of advanced CI. Therefore, the loss of a university specialist has an impact on the national workforce pipeline than when an employee leaves a position in the private-sector.

At the SC16 conference in Salt Lake City, several sessions also focused on this problem. Most agree the quickest way to expand the national workforce pipeline is to enhance broader engagement efforts. It’s well known that the industry lacks diversity and would benefit from recruiting and retaining a larger number of female and minority prospects. However, despite a concerted effort by CI programs to broaden engagement in the use of HPC since the mid 2000’s, the numbers have only slightly improved. It’s evident that the solution isn’t as simple as providing more travel scholarships. Prospects don’t always apply for programs that were intended to support them, and it’s difficult to capture their attention in the first place.

Why don’t more women and minorities apply for travel grants?

Female and minority tech students and employees are more likely to come from poorer socioeconomic conditions than their majority male counterparts. Training in the use of advanced CI is seldom offered in public university curricula, and few small public and minority-serving institutions have locally-hosted HPC on which to train. Therefore, it’s unlikely they’ve been exposed to HPC, or advanced CI. By missing out on conferencing opportunities, they become further disadvantaged because they can’t build professional networks; expert relationships help accelerate careers.

University personnel are spread thinner. Any who teach have more sections, advise more students, and there are fewer teaching assistants. Many HPC sysadmins and trainers are one-deep and support aging hardware that requires more monitoring and upkeep. Depending where you are on the food chain, release time might not be approved—even if you’re awarded a travel grant. Early-career professionals we most hope to engage are more likely to earn an hourly wage, vs. salaried, and therefore lack vacation benefits or release time. They’re also more likely to hold a second or third job in order to make ends meet. Time away without pay means the financial gap only gets worse.

It’s also possible some never learn about the opportunities. A popular communication strategy is to push information to research computing directors, computer science department chairs and other leaders who have the opportunity to reach large communities of early-career STEM scholars. In practice, some only share information with a select few students or employees whom they feel are most likely to be interested, and/or succeed. The communication method is therefore flawed since it presents an opportunity for favoritism and bias that would prevent new prospects—especially women and minorities—from learning about STEM travel grants and other professional development programs.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, early-career female and minority employees are more likely to have experienced periods of unemployment, and therefore struggle to repay student debt (and 2016 graduates have an average of $37,172).

There are more female single parent heads of household, and women are more likely than their brothers to assume responsibility for eldercare. They are least likely to afford continuing education, and less likely to work in jobs that offer educational benefits. If they have child or elder care obligations, second jobs or other financial responsibilities, they probably won’t apply for travel scholarships. Even if they’re granted time off from their primary employer with pay, travel grants don’t make up for lost wages from second jobs, or cover dependent care costs. Even two-income families exhaust vacation and sick time for family obligations, and therefore hesitate to take time off for training.

While SC16 offered on-site childcare this year, access isn’t the only problem. Fees and travel costs are prohibitive—no matter how affordable by US standards—especially for international attendees from countries where consumer prices are 80 or 90 percent lower.

When we have taken time to ask why people didn’t apply for travel grants, the lone female in an otherwise all male work group has reported feeling as though she must work twice as hard as her male counterparts; that it’s expected, and if she doesn’t, she fears being replaced by a man. They fear colleagues will be jealous if they receive special privileges (like a “broader engagement” travel award) and what is described as an “inhospitable” work environment could deteriorate while they’re away.

A 2015 Association of University Women Report found a sharp decline in the number of women who have pursued computer science and engineering careers in the past few decades. A study by the National Center for Women in Information Technology found that more than 50 percent of women leave technical careers within ten years (more than double the drop-out rate for men), despite 74 percent reporting a high degree of satisfaction with the work.

Why are they leaving STEM fields? Another study found that many blame the workplace culture; they don’t feel like they fit in and aren’t always made to feel welcome. The HPC industry has few female and minority role models to inspire newcomers. STEM-Trek will provide gap fund awardees the opportunity to pair with a volunteer career coach or conference mentor—someone with whom they can identify and that has already blazed a successful trail. Through this affinity relationship, they will begin to envision themselves progressing in CI careers.


Cover Photo Credit: Young woman with her grandfather by (c) Michael Jung, Dreamstime.

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