Computer Architecture Today

Informing the broad computing community about current activities, advances and future directions in computer architecture.

With MICRO upon us, I would like to take time to reflect on the events running up to the establishment of CASA, or the Computer Architecture Student Association. This month we will be celebrating our first anniversary as an active organization! 

We at CASA, feel we have made significant progress towards our goal of bringing students in computer architecture together and providing a strong support system for all. We are thankful for the support CASA has received from the community at large; you have helped us fund and run a series of successful initiatives and events throughout the past year. Before we look back on our establishment and highlight our activities of the past year, we would like to thank all of you who contributed to them, whether you were an organizer, a participant, or a sponsor. You have helped make CASA what it is. 

CASA’s establishment did not occur overnight—it was the result of almost a year of planning, community outreach, discussions, and exploration among a group of dedicated students and supporters. For me, it all originally began as a fleeting idea while attending ISCA 2019. Initially, I imagined an affinity group focusing on students from historically marginalized or disadvantaged (e.g. first-generation, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled) backgrounds. However, with the murmurs of a great tragedy in the community and a later chance meeting with future co-founder Raghavendra (Raghav) Pothukuchi at MICRO 2019, the concept of the group evolved toward one for any and all students in computer architecture who seek a support system. 

For Raghav and me, CASA was a way to address the mental health crisis that has been silently growing in our student community. As we worked on this issue, students came forward with accounts of how they or someone they knew faced distressing experiences during their graduate studies. Of course, this problem extends beyond our community—in our research, we came across a study in Nature Biotechnology, which surveyed over 2000 graduate students from around 200 institutions and found that graduate students are “more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.” We want to make a change, and don’t want to leave any student behind. 

By May 2020, Raghav and I wrote and published our proposal through IEEE TCCA, outlining what we felt were proper steps toward supporting students in our community. This proposal acknowledged the precarious position graduate students hold relative to others in academia, the elusive work-life balance in their lives, and worse, how negative graduate student stereotypes, normalized unhealthy behaviors and stigma on mental health often remain barriers to seeking help. In June 2020, we published an article on Computer Architecture Today advertising the proposal and began to actively recruit students for the creation of the proposed student group.

With a core group of student volunteers and faculty support gathered, the summer of 2020 brought a flurry of online meetings, brainstorming sessions, and long Slack discussions. The final result was the announcement of the formation of the Computer Architecture Student Association at MICRO 2020. With a dedicated student Slack space and an active social media presence, CASA has been helping keep students in computer architecture connected and informed. I sincerely feel CASA has kept to its goals of supporting students and making our community more approachable.

The timeline graphic below outlines the events and initiatives run by CASA over the past year. The following is a write-up highlighting select events.

Timeline of 2020-2021 CASA activities. Graphic graciously made by steering committee member, Tiancheng Xu.

MaSS/MaSA: To help junior architecture students get to know other students and get important advice, CASA teamed up with Prof. Joel Emer to extend the highly successful Meet-a-Senior-Architect (MaSA) program and launch the Meet-A-Senior-Student (MaSS) program at MICRO 2020. In the first iteration of MaSS, 84 junior students (undergraduate, masters and 1st/2nd year PhD) joined as mentees and 55 senior students (3rd+ year PhD) signed up to become mentors. At ASPLOS 2021, 88 junior students joined as mentees and 54 senior students joined as mentors. Furthermore, CASA helped extend the MaSA program beyond ISCA and into ASPLOS 2021. We will again be helping run MaSA at MICRO 2021.

ArchChat Social Hour: To help the community stay connected amid the ongoing global pandemic, we introduced a recurring online social event called the ArchChat Social Hour. Established with help from PLTea organizers, we ran it as a monthly event throughout the first half of 2021. During ArchChat, attendees met and chatted with colleagues in randomized Zoom breakout rooms. We hope to continue it in the future on a quarterly or semesterly basis now with institutions being back in-person. 

A screenshot of participants at the first ArchChat Social Hour in January 2021.

Mental Health & PhD Studies Workshop: As outlined earlier, the mental health crisis among graduate students is a very real and serious issue. To bring attention to these issues, our initial proposal called for programming to help fellow students share, listen, and be heard. Thus, with generous support from both ACM SIGARCH and IEEE TCCA, CASA announced and held a two-part event on the intersection of PhD studies & mental health in March 2021. Presenters from PhD Balance shared advice on how to address difficult academic situations, created a space for students to share academic experiences, and provided useful tips on navigating graduate school. While hosting a single event by no means solves the problems faced by students in our community, we plan to continue holding programming that helps fellow students better navigate the trials and tribulations brought on by academic studies.

Summer DEI Reading Group: Events in the computing community and society at large spurred CASA steering committee member, Udit Gupta, to organize a summer-long reading series focused on advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in computer architecture. Students and faculty members read relevant works and participated in discussion, sharing personal experiences and bringing awareness to diverse issues faced by many in our community. We are currently working on publishing a repository with the reading materials used and related discussion guides for others to use and run their own groups.

Mentoring Publications & Future Initiatives: To further promote the development of successful mentoring initiatives in computer architecture, members of CASA explored current short-term mentoring programming (along with feedback from both MaSS and MaSA) and proposed developing long-term mentoring programming for computer architecture. We presented our resulting paper, Mentoring Opportunities in Computer Architecture: Analyzing the Past to Develop the Future, at the Workshop on Computer Architecture Education (WCAE 2021) at ISCA 2021. 

In the paper, we highlight the importance of mentor-mentee relationships, and emphasize the long time frame necessary to solidify these relationships. While the computer architecture community currently hosts many short-term mentoring opportunities, long-term mentoring programming is currently not readily available. We also demonstrate how mentorship relationships are particularly important for students from historically marginalized backgrounds. It is therefore crucial to form long-term mentoring programs to retain these students and thus develop a more diverse computing body in the future. 

As such, CASA is excited to announce our most recent initiative: the Computer Architecture Long-term Mentoring Program, or CALM. CALM is the result of aforementioned research, analysis, and outreach. This initiative matches mentors with mentees from the greater computer architecture community for longer term mentoring, e.g. one year. To learn more about the CALM Pilot Program, long-term mentoring, and participating, we will be hosting two CALM Kick-Off events during MICRO 2021. 

I am beyond proud of what CASA and its members have achieved in the past year. CASA would be nowhere without the dedication and time graciously given by its steering committee and supporting faculty–I thank each and every one of you profusely. Co-founding CASA with Raghav has been an honor, and both my personal and professional lives are richer for it. I hope our student members feel the same! 

CASA’s future looks bright with new initiatives and cohorts of members on the horizon. Recent generous financial support from the architecture community will ensure CASA’s mission continues, especially as we return to in-person conferences and programming. My long term vision is that student-led initiatives and communities like CASA become the norm in all computing research communities. That we will all look back at the time when they did not exist with shock and gratitude for the present. For now, I am content with computer architecture leading the way in this vision.

About the Author: Elba Garza is co-founder of CASA and a final-year PhD student at Texas A&M University, working under Daniel Jiménez. She is currently in the academic job market for teaching-track positions.

Disclaimer: These posts are written by individual contributors to share their thoughts on the Computer Architecture Today blog for the benefit of the community. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal, belong solely to the blog author and do not represent those of ACM SIGARCH or its parent organization, ACM.