Coming Full Circle: Past Scholarship Recipients Now at the Helm of Internet2’s Inclusivity Initiative

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By Amber Rasche - Senior Communications Specialist, Internet2

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Q&A with Deidre Mitchell and Sarvani Chadalapaka, I2I Steering Committee Co-Chairs

At the start of 2022, Internet2 selected Deidre Mitchell, enterprise information security engineer at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and Sarvani Chadalapaka, director of Cyberinfrastructure and Research Technologies (CIRT) at the University of California Merced, to serve as the new co-chairs of the Internet2 Inclusivity Initiative (I2I) Steering Committee. Both are past recipients of the I2I Scholarship Award and are now paying that experience forward – serving as members of the I2I Steering Committee since 2019 and now as co-chairs at the committee’s helm.

In this Q&A, Deidre and Sarvani discuss their career paths, what sparked and continues to drive their passion for promoting diversity and inclusion in the community, and their shared vision for I2I as co-chairs.

Photo of Deidre Mitchell and Sarvani Chadalapaka
Deidre Mitchell
and Sarvani Chadalapaka
Did You Know?
There’s still time to apply for the 2022 I2I Scholarship to attend the Internet2 Technology Exchange!

To apply or nominate a colleague, visit the I2I Scholarship Award Information page. The deadline is 5 p.m. CT on Sept. 30.

Tell us about your background and how it has shaped your career path. When did you know you wanted to have a career in information technology? What led you to pursue that career in the research and education (R&E) community, specifically?

Deidre Mitchell: My parents were educators, active in the community, and very active in my and my siblings’ lives. During my childhood, they stressed the importance of diverse cultural, creative experiences and opportunities. My siblings and I all had a vast array of interests during our formative years, and my parents supported everything from sports, dance, music (even opera!), and volunteer opportunities for me to explore the medical profession in high school. We were allowed to be curious and ask questions respectfully. My mother gave me the courage to embrace learning new concepts – to be comfortable with not knowing the answer to everything; however, using what you do know to solve problems. 

My beloved uncle, James Moore, a retired science teacher, consistently fueled my natural interests in science and human anatomy/physiology from my childhood until his death in 2021. I learned through that high school volunteer experience that I could not handle the death component of the medical profession, but I still wanted to support professionals in the field without being one. During my senior year, I noticed technology majors were not being promoted to me as a possible career option. I was even told by a male classmate that “coding is not for girls.” Believe it or not, that made me even more curious. I found out that a career in technology was not only an interest but also a way to help support and protect the data generated by medical professionals.

Sarvani Chadalapaka: After I graduated with a master’s degree in electrical engineering, one of the job postings I came across was for an HPC systems engineer at a private company. I was excited by what the role entailed, from code development to systems administration. I thought the job looked like something I could learn to do, so I applied and got it. This initial foray into HPC is something that helps me even today, as the skills I learned while in this role underpin how I now approach managing HPC systems and research cyberinfrastructure. 

After two years, I moved to UC Merced as an HPC systems administrator with the Cyberinfrastructure and Research Technologies (CIRT) team, which provides HPC resources to computational researchers on campus as well as helps researchers understand whether resources available nationally or internationally are better suited to their needs. This was my very first R&E role, and I was lucky to have my CIO and my boss at the time think it was a great idea for me to attend the Oklahoma HPC Symposium. There I was introduced to Dr. Dana Brunson who suggested I join the NSF XSEDE Campus Champions, a cross-institution community of research computing professionals. I was delighted to join and quickly recognized this was a great group from which to learn the workings of HPC in a higher ed context.

After a while, I realized that my interest lies in building cyberinfrastructure and research computing communities. Now as the director of CIRT, my focus is on developing teaching, outreach, and training initiatives for diverse computational researchers. My team builds and runs innovative, large-scale cyberinfrastructure and technology solutions, and we empower researchers with high-performance computing tools that solve large, complex research problems in far less time and at lower cost – be it providing accurate weather forecasts by running climate models or analyzing the DNA of starfish or sifting through social media to identify patterns. By leading a team that builds cyberinfrastructure and drives overall HPC service provisioning, I advance UC’s research mission by establishing HPC as a core campus research facility.

What I am getting at is that, although R&E was never a field I imagined myself to be a part of, I realized I enjoy the challenges of this field. My mentors and sponsors in this space have helped me reach where I am now.

What is one lesson you have learned thus far in your career that you would pass along to women who are just getting started?

Deidre Mitchell: Don’t get so caught up in your day-to-day work that you neglect the big picture. With a strong work ethic, you might just put your head down and do the work – and you might plan but only for your current job duties and deliverables. There’s a metaphor about taking time to “sharpen the saw,” which calls for more balance in allocating time to work on your skills, take inventory of yourself, and reflect on where you want to go in your career.

Sarvani Chadalapaka: As women and underrepresented minorities, we have always been taught to work within this technology field by navigating systems that don’t necessarily work for minorities and women – “play with the cards we are dealt,” is what we are told. But now is the time to stop and change the whole deck of cards. To change the culture of technology, reimagine and redesign what tech could and should look like, and address systemic issues. This change comes when allies in the space use their privilege to bring women and minorities to the table where decisions are made.

For each of you, your first introduction to the Internet2 Inclusivity Initiative was as a recipient of the I2I Scholarship Award, which recognizes and supports emerging women professionals in networking and IT. Deidre received the award in 2015 and Sarvani in 2017. Tell us about that experience and your biggest takeaways. 

Deidre Mitchell: My biggest takeaway was that women are on the decline in the IT workforce at an alarming rate. I also saw first-hand how the higher education IT workforce share common challenges yet are very passionate about supporting their institutions’ innovation and research efforts.

Sarvani Chadalapaka: UC Merced’s CIO emerita Dr. Ann Kovalchick and my then boss Jeffrey Weekley nominated me for the Internet2 Inclusivity Initiative Award in Recognition of Carrie Regenstein. Winning this scholarship provided me the opportunity to attend the 2017 Internet2 Technology Exchange and to receive mentorship from Carrie and other leaders in the field. I saw tech leaders use TechEX as a platform to start meaningful discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion in technology – from the glass ceiling to stereotyping to the broken rung problem. The conversations were thought-provoking and made me realize that 1) I am not alone in thinking that the current technology field is not a level playing field for women and minorities, and 2) more importantly, I am not alone in wanting to change this. 

This knowledge is both powerful and freeing. Since then, I joined the I2I Steering Committee, spoke about I2I at the 2019 TechEX in New Orleans, and created the worldwide Women in HPC (WHPC) Mentoring Program and webinar series for early-career HPC women in collaboration with the WHPC.

You both went on to join the I2I Steering Committee in 2019 – and now you’re at the helm of that committee as co-chairs. What sparked your passion to get involved in this initiative to promote diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the community, and what continues to drive it? 

Deidre Mitchell: Initially in 2015, I was disappointed to learn about the decline of women in IT and further disheartened at its racial breakdown. Since 2015, I have been intentional about using the lessons I have learned to help and mentor others who are trying to enter and thrive in the IT industry.

Sarvani Chadalapaka: According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2020, although women make up 55% of the professional workforce, they represent only 24.5% of the workforce in computer and mathematical fields (with even fewer Black, Asian and Hispanic women represented in that workforce). Thus, we don’t see enough role models that look like us in those fields – including in higher positions of leadership – and at times, we’re the only people of our identity in the room. 

“According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2020, although women make up 55% of the professional workforce, they represent only 24.5% of the workforce in computer and mathematical fields (with even fewer Black, Asian and Hispanic women represented in that workforce). Thus, we don’t see enough role models that look like us in those fields – including in higher positions of leadership – and at times, we’re the only people of our identity in the room.”

–Sarvani Chadalapaka

Not just that, even in the relatively high-paying computer field, women’s median weekly earnings in 2020 were $1,423 while men’s were $1,738 (i.e., women earned just 81% of what men did). And in engineering it wasn’t much better – women earned 85% of what men did. For many of us, we don’t realize this is an issue until one day it is. Our self-doubt, inner criticism, and much more are known to be higher when we don’t have role models around us with whom we can identify – and this is why finding a community with allies is significant. 

The causes behind the wage gap are many and multifaceted – from unconscious bias to lack of opportunities in the workplace for women and other underrepresented groups and much much more. The wage gap is a symptom of a much bigger problem. This is why I am passionate about equity, diversity, and inclusion, and continue to address these issues through the work of the I2I Steering Committee.

Looking forward, what do you hope to accomplish through I2I during your time as co-chairs?

Deidre Mitchell: One priority that we’re in the early stages of exploring is mentorship opportunities. We are researching what programs already exist within our community and looking for gaps that we could fill in facilitating a new blueprint for a mentorship program.

Sarvani Chadalapaka: Yes, we want to build a stronger community within and beyond the I2I award recipients by providing more professional networking and career development opportunities. This will have the added benefit of helping those who are otherwise underrepresented meet role models, mentors, advocates, and allies to elevate their careers. We see a lot of synergy among the various DEI initiatives across the technology sector, and we would like to see more communication, connection, and collaboration to enable us to achieve far more together in terms of inclusion.