How Travel Improved My Confidence & Altered My Career Trajectory

MelissaAbdelbakyHeadshotBy Melissa Romanus (Rutgers University)

There are certain experiences in life that have a profound impact on you. And, even if you don’t know it at the time, you are forever changed by them. Without a doubt, the most impactful experience of my graduate research career was the opportunity to participate in the SIAM-CSE15 Broader Engagement (BE) program.

When I applied, it was right after I had changed research groups, which left me feeling overwhelmed, discouraged and alone. At the time, I had no idea how effective the SIAM-CSE BE program would be in helping me conquer these feelings, and elevate my confidence for the future.

I was dreading the first night of the conference, where program participants were scheduled to meet. I was quite shy and introverted, so it probably comes as no surprise that I used to loathe icebreakers. Much to my surprise, I found myself in the middle of a game of Human Bingo — where participants had to walk around the room in an effort to find others with whom you share affinity (for example, ‘find an iPhone owner’ or ‘someone who majors in biology’). Focusing on the game took the pressure off of the introductions, and I ended up having a great time — even winning a prize for being among the first to score a ‘BINGO’!

Group-MelissaOver the next few days, I pushed myself to come out of my shell and contribute to conversations as much as I could, and the BE program provided ample opportunities for me to do so. For example, the program incorporated a creativity element that I had never seen at a technical conference; through the Wilderness Project, we were encouraged to make buttons, paintings, drawings, or pipe cleaner sculptures—whatever we wanted—with our peers and mentors. As we worked, we chatted about our fields, experiences, challenges, etc. It was amazing to find out how much everyone had in common, even though our backgrounds were diverse. In making my project, I realized how much pressure I had been putting on myself with my research. The free-form artwork reminded me that it’s okay to lighten up a little and, even sometimes, laugh at yourself (in a good way, of course). In fact, it leads to greater creativity!


Mary Ann Leung (SHI)

The conference also offered a “Pathways to Success” workshop, where Dr. Mary Ann Leung (Sustainable Horizons Institute, SHI) described the path she had taken in life – which wasn’t a straight line from point A to point B. In fact, there were lots of bumps, peaks, and valleys along the way. It was one of the most inspirational talks I have ever heard, and my peers said they felt the same way.

Afterward, we shared our own stories, and on my mission to break out of my shell, I even presented mine to the entire group! It felt great to physically draw the steep hill I had overcome by switching research groups. The exercise allowed me to envision a straighter path for my future.


Photo by Roger Garcia (SIAM-CSE15 Delegate)

Lastly, the relationships I made at SIAM-CSE are treasured to this day. Several of us have kept in touch, and I often run into them at other conferences. Elizabeth Bautista from NERSC (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab) introduced me to the group lead of NERSC’s Data and Analytics Services. That introduction led to an amazing internship where I had the opportunity to work with state-of-the-art high-performance computing hardware.

SIAM Drawings

Photo by Roger Garcia (SIAM-CSE15 Delegate)

It’s difficult to completely capture in words how much the SIAM-CSE BE program experience has meant to me. It changed the course of my graduate career at a time when I had been debating whether or not to leave academia to find a job in industry. The diversity, inclusivity and collaborative spirit of the program were absolutely unparalleled, and I am happy to say that I have made lasting friendships with individuals who work in a wide variety of STEM fields. I hope such programs continue to break down barriers between students in different fields, which I believe will lead to richer interdisciplinary STEM research and transformative breakthroughs. I hope to pay-it-forward by volunteering as a mentor or by supporting future STEM-Trek and SHI programs so newcomers will know they aren’t alone—we’ve cleared the path!

About Melissa:

Melissa Romanus is pursuing a joint-PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering & Computational Biology and Molecular Biophysics at Rutgers University. She currently works on the DataSpaces project under the direction of Dr. Manish Parashar as part of the Rutgers Discovery Informatics Institute (RDI2). She received her undergraduate degree from Tufts University in Computer Engineering in 2010 and her Master’s degree from Rutgers in 2014. Her current research is focused on providing a domain-specific coupling language for in-situ scientific workflows running on extreme scale systems. She is also passionate about STEM outreach activities.



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