PSC Staff Profile - Debra Nigra (with PSC since 1986)

Deb Nigra

Opening just when the level of women in the technology workforce was peaking, PSC brought on Deb Nigra, Senior Computational Science Consultant, demonstrating its diverse outlook on its staff contributions to HPC. Deb reflects on her experience at PSC through 25 years.

PSC: It was the mid-80s and you’d gotten your master’s degree in Information Science, what brought you to the PSC?

Deb: I was working at the Carnegie Mellon University Computation Center as a User Consultant when I saw the job opening at the PSC. I had worked with Mike Levine from the CMU Physics dept. on a project, so I was familiar with him. I also thought at the time that the Comp Center jobs were in danger because they were working on a radical new user interface in the Andrew group on campus which was not command-line based.

PSC: What was this radical new interface that had you so nervous?

Deb: (laughing) It was a wacky interface where you could be doing more than one thing at a time on your computer, and you could see all those things at once; they called it "windows".

PSC: So you applied for a position at PSC, what was your first impression?

Deb: I applied, and one night I got a phone call at home from Ralph (Roskies) just as we were sitting down to dinner. Ralph wanted to interview me over the phone for the PSC job, but I was so surprised at the call that I stammered out that we were about to eat, could he call back in an hour? He agreed, but when I hung up and realized what I had done, I thought I had blown my chance at the job. He did call back and interviewed me, and some days later I got a job offer.

I still had to meet with Executive Director Beverly Clayton about the final details. That meeting was scheduled for an afternoon; I remember that, because I had a morning appointment with my physician that day to confirm that I was pregnant. When I met with Beverly later that day, I told her that I was expecting and that I was not sure that I would want to continue to work after the baby was born. They must have been desperate for help, because she hired me anyway.

Now 25 years later, that baby is in graduate school and I'm still here.

PSC: It seems you made the first impression instead and you’ve been here for 25 years, what is your most compelling memory over the last 25 years?

Deb: One of my strongest PSC memories was when Admiral Grace Hopper came to speak. It was early on, but I don't remember the exact year. I was so impressed by her, and by the fact there here was a woman who was an admiral, who was a pioneer in computer science. She brought along little pieces of wire with her, about a foot long, which she passed out to everyone and said "This is a nanosecond." - the wire was the length that light travels in a nanosecond. I was just amazed that she made a concept that I could not really get a grasp of - I mean, how long is a nanosecond? - so concrete. It resonated with me.

PSC: Really? How?

Deb: You've heard about "nanoseconds" and "milliseconds" and you know that they are really short times. But to really illustrate it, consider this. Light travels almost a foot in one nanosecond. A millisecond is a million times longer than a nanosecond, so light travels about 1,000,000 feet in one millisecond. If a nanosecond is a foot of wire, a millisecond is 1,000,000 feet of wire - or about 189 MILES. A millisecond is one-thousandth of a second - an impossibly short time. But it is 189 miles compared to a one foot nanosecond.

THAT'S how small a nanosecond is.

I've heard a lot of talks over the years but that's one of the few that still sticks with me.

PSC: Very impresive indeed. Do you think PSC has impacted HPC in this way?

Deb: I don't think I have enough of an outside perspective to understand how what we've done has moved computing or science.

I do remember how unique it was that Michael and Ralph hired PhD. scientists to be user support staff from the beginning. That just wasn't where PhD.s worked. But it has certainly been a great success, and an idea that has been copied by other Centers.


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