Kevin Ayala (Pomona College, Computer Science) provides an encouraging insight into his experience working with HPC Support and at the in The Know Lab. Kevin discusses the high standards involved in the projects as well as the opportunities open to minorities who do not have access to such equipment.
I only heard about the lab because I happened to be in the right place at the right time. But as soon as I joined, I knew it was the perfect place for me to be. When Asya gave me the tour, there was a sense of wonder at seeing all the technology that was available, but also at seeing what students like me were already doing with them. It was something I could only describe with the first word that came out of my mouth: “Wow!”
And to be honest, I was a little scared as well. Everyone was already so far ahead, and it seemed like everyone else knew so much. I hadn’t grown up with access to any of this technology, and I felt like I was trying to drink water through a fire hose every time I went to a team meeting. Even now, months later, I know I still have a lot left to learn before I can delve into the industry in any professional way. But I’ve learned something else through my work in the lab, perhaps something more important.
It wasn’t something that anyone said, but rather from feeling the energy in the room at each of those meetings. It was a sense of inspiration, of confidence in our own abilities. It was the feeling of dozens of minds working together, each believing in the changes we were making and the projects we were undertaking. Most important, it was the sense that our inexperience, our lack of knowledge or talent or resources, was not a limitation. It was nothing more than a stepping stone, and we could use it to go wherever we want to go.
“The How is Secondary” became my own little phrase, both to explain the near chaos of the lab and to motivate my own self. It doesn’t mean that “How” wasn’t an important part of what we did, but it did mean that I didn’t have to let it stop me. I slowly became more confident in the idea that I didn’t have to know everything about what I was working with, not yet. I could learn along the way, and perhaps even learn better! I could create my own “wow” moments.
That was a big change for me. I’ve always loved learning, but it’s always served as a means to an end, both a way to get where I was going and a stop sign to keep me from going there until I was ‘ready’. I had always held myself back, waiting until I knew or had enough experience to do what I wanted to do. And that’s not the way the Lab works.
In fact, one of the great things about the Lab, and the reason it’s so successful is because it encourages us to experiment, but holds us to a higher standard when doing so. When I started working with Raspberry Pi’s, I knew nothing about them except that they were small computers. For that matter, I knew nothing about Linux or using Secure Shell to access another system. But I was encouraged to learn about them – to find the resources that I needed. At first, it was terrifying. To know that I might fail, might not know enough to make it work, made me wary of starting my own project. But with each little breakthrough, I grew more confident and more excited. And just last week, I watched in wonder as the 3D printer finally responded to my click on the laptop touchpad.
That little bit of movement was such a relief. I hadn’t let myself believe that I’d done it until I saw it for myself, but man, it felt so good to know that I had done that, from scratch and by learning on the go. I think that bit of confidence that the Lab gives is sometimes underestimated.
One of my favorite things about the Lab, and something I know Asya works very hard on, is the atmosphere of diversity and inclusivity. Part of that is knowing that minorities often don’t have the confidence to work in the field, because we’ve never had the chance to work with or, even be around, these types of technology. There’s a certain feeling of anxiety, worrying that you’ll break or damage something too expensive for you to even look at. But I think that the reason we’ve been so successful in this endeavor is the implicit trust given to us by the idea that we can learn what we need to along the way. That trust inspires confidence and that confidence, in turn, inspires our ideas and our learning to flourish. And that is something I’m profoundly thankful for.
By Kevin Ayala