Sandhya Dwarkadas

Sandhya Dwarkadas

Opening the pipeline for women in computing

When Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, issued a call to increase diversity among computer science undergraduates in 2014, Sandhya Dwarkadas immediately responded.

As a result, the department Dwarkadas chaired at the University of Rochester became one of only 15 nationwide selected to participate in the BRAID (Building, Recruiting, And Inclusion for Diversity) Initiative.

The department’s community building efforts have included support of underrepresented groups through student organizations including Women in Computing (URWiC-MiC), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE); as well as TA training initiated in 2018 in order to foster a more inclusive learning environment.

“These efforts have certainly borne fruit,” Dwarkadas says. From a small group with a handful of participants a few years ago, URWiC-MiC is now diverse and includes 200 members (more than a third of the CS community). The department’s graduating class has had roughly 30% women since 2017  -- well above the national average.

This is but one in a string of accomplishments that resulted in Dwarkadas, the Albert Arendt Hopeman Professor of Engineering, receiving the 2020 Edmund A. Hajim Outstanding Faculty Award.

As a researcher she has made fundamental contributions in both hardware and software to the ongoing quest to improve the efficiency and speed of parallel and distributed computing systems.

As department chair, she has led the University’s computer science program through a dramatic increase in undergraduate enrollments – in the midst of which the department relocated to new offices and labs, which required her to work closely with the architects to ensure that the design met the department’s needs. She also expanded the department’s Masters program to accept roughly 30 students each year.

In her time as chair, Dwarkadas recruited eight new tenure- and teaching-track faculty members in order to meet the needs of the department’ growing educational programs and interdisciplinary research. The new faculty members have bolstered the department’s traditional strengths in systems and architecture, as well as added expertise in data management, human computer interaction, and computer vision. Two of those hires were women.

“This has obviously been a group effort,” Dwarkadas is quick to add.

Coping with an enrollment surge and managing a major move are not challenges Dwarkadas would have had to tackle had she chosen to pursue a career in industry or at a research laboratory. But they are part and parcel of the myriad opportunities she has at the University to teach, to serve, and to do research of her own choosing. Those are the opportunities that drew her to academia -- and that keep her there.

‘A socially isolating experience’

Dwarkadas was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. Her father was an army colonel who retired to go into investing when Dwarkadas was six. Her mother was a former schoolteacher.

“When I was growing up, computers were not very prevalent,” Dwarkadas says. Instead, she became interested in physics in high school. She finished in the top 200 among literally tens of thousands of applicants who took an entrance exam and was accepted at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. Though her father urged her to pursue computer science, Dwarkadas opted to complete a degree in electronics.

The residential campus was organized so that Dwarkadas and the five other women who entered that year stayed in one dorm with the other 20 to 30 women students at the institute; male students were assigned to other dorms by major.

“It was a socially isolating experience,” says Dwarkadas, who was the only woman in the electronics program. “You were not with your class, which created a different dynamic for the women. It meant that you couldn’t just walk next door and say, ‘I have a problem that I need help with.’ You would have to make a special effort.”

She made the effort. “I had plenty of classmates who wanted to interact, and we did.” She graduated in 1986.

By then, Dwarkadas was becoming increasingly interested in computer engineering. She attended Rice University, earning master’s and PhD degrees in electrical and computer engineering in 1989 and 1993 respectively. Her dissertation, “Synchronization, Coherence, and Consistency for High Performance Shared-Memory Multiprocessing,” was jointly supervised by J Robert Jump and Bart Sinclair.

She stayed at Rice for postdoctoral studies with Willy Zwaenepoel (now at the University of Sydney). Zwaenepoel is an expert in experimental computer science research with a particular interest in distributed systems and operating systems. Dwarkadas’ work with Zwaenepoel enabled her to continue the research she had been doing at the hardware level, but also expand into software. This helped lay the groundwork for her future research at the interface of the two.

With other members of Zwaenepoel’s group, Dwarkadas was one of the principal designers of the influential TreadMarks system, a pioneering attempt to efficiently emulate shared memory across a cluster of workstations. TreadMarks eventually became the basis of Intel’s Cluster OpenMP.

The postdoc “really helped my career,” Dwarkadas says. After interviewing “quite broadly” at universities and research labs, she chose Rochester “because academia presented the opportunity to contribute to both research and education, and because the department seemed to have created a collegial and close-knit environment for both faculty and students to thrive in. After 24 years in the department, I am happy to report that we continue to work hard to retain this environment!”

A ‘continuously changing’ research landscape

Dwarkadas’s primary research interests include computer architecture, parallel and distributed systems, and the interaction and interface between the compiler, the runtime/operating system, and the underlying architecture.

In early work at Rochester, she co-led the Cashmere and InterWeave projects along with colleague Michael Scott. These projects demonstrated how the abstraction of shared memory, widely considered to be easier to use when programming in parallel, could be supported efficiently in software on both clusters of multiprocessors and in wide-area networks by leveraging unique properties of both technology and applications. These projects resulted in collaborations and a joint patent with industry. Her more recent work in this area returns to innovations in hardware in the design of coherence protocols to improve data communication efficiency, as well as to protect and isolate data.  

Another focus of her research is energy- and resource-aware configurability both in hardware and software. At the hardware level, in collaboration with colleague David Albonesi, she developed several architectural innovations that leveraged technology trends in order to dynamically configure portions of the microarchitecture to reduce energy and improve performance. Work in this area led to several licensed patents and collaborations with industry. Dwarkadas continues this line of research at the operating system level, working closely with industry in order to ensure the relevance of her research.

In a 2016 interview with Computer Research Association-Widening Participation (CRA-WP), Dwarkadas described the “continuously changing landscape” of this research at the boundary of hardware and software. She also talked about how the demands of new and emerging application domains “provide a steady supply of challenging research questions.” She works closely with practitioners in the area of parallel computing both within the university and across institutions to ensure the relevance and practicality of the systems she develops.

In addition to research funding from industry sources, Dwarkadas has been principal or co-principal investigator for 20 National Science Foundation (NSF) research grants totaling $8.5 million, starting with a prestigious CAREER award in 1997. She has more than 100 refereed publications that span various topics of computer architecture and systems, and she is coinventor on 12 United States patents, some of which are licensed.

In recognition of her contributions, she has been named a Fellow of the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM) and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), for her contributions to “shared memory and reconfigurability.”

Particularly rewarding, she says, has been the opportunity to supervise her PhD students. “Each of them tends to be unique, enabling me to explore new areas based on their specific interests,” she says. “And it is always a reward and something to be proud of when they get a complete dissertation in place.”

Her former PhD students include the engineering director at Facebook, the principal applied science manager at Microsoft, a senior technical leader at Cisco systems, a principal architect at Nvidia, and faculty members at Ohio State University, the University of Utah, and Simon Fraser University.

Praises student outreach efforts

Dwarkadas is actively involved with Computer Research Association-Widening Participation (CRA-WP), and is currently co-chair of the board.

“I have always admired CRA-WP’s efforts to support women in research,” she said in a 2016 interview. “As a graduate student, I attended one of the first academic career workshops organized for PhD students.”

Subsequently she was a panelist or speaker at several mentoring workshops, and served on the board, co-chairing the Graduate Cohort workshop for Women and administering the Borg Early Career Award (BECA), prior to taking on her current role as co-chair.

Running the CRA-WP Graduate Cohort Workshop for Women was particularly rewarding, she said. “While much of the advice dispensed is valuable to any graduate student, given the still small percentages of women in PhD programs in computing, it seems imperative to provide them with the support that might help retain them in the research pipeline.”

Now, through the BRAID initiative, she is helping attract more women to the start of that pipeline and hopes to turn the department’s attention to be more inclusive of all underrepresented groups. As part of its participation in BRAID, the Rochester computer science department agreed to:

  • lead outreach programs involving local high school teachers and their students
  • modify introductory computer science courses to make them more appealing and less intimidating to underrepresented undergraduate students
  • build confidence and community among those underrepresented students,
  • develop or promote joint majors -- such as computer science and biology -- that are attractive to underrepresented students.

The $30,000 a year the department receives for participating in BRAID allows several students to attend the annual Grace Hopper Celebration, where they can benefit from workshops, learn from women role models who are leaders in technology, and network with potential employers.

Dwarkadas said she is “especially, amazingly happy” at how much the students are contributing to BRAID on their own initiative.

The department’s WiC (Women in Computing) student group, which has increased from 30 some members to more than 200, recently renamed itself WiC-MiC – (adding Minorities in Computing) -- in recognition of the work that still needs to be done to recruit students from other underrepresented populations. UR WiC-MiC was awarded the 2020 Meliora Values Award for Equity.

WiC students contribute significantly to the department’s outreach efforts, conducting a Girls Who Code program for high school students and for a local Girl Scout chapter.

“This is all on their own initiative; there are no faculty telling them to do this,” Dwarkadas says, “and I think it’s fantastic.”

(Dwarkadas stepped down as chair of the Department of Computer Science after completing her term, effective July 1, 2020.)