Kathy Yelick is the Associate Laboratory Director for Computing Sciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She is also a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley and former Director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC). She is known for her work in the design and implementation of parallel programming languages, in automatic performance tuning, and she has published over a hundred technical papers in this area. She earned her Ph.D. in EECS from MIT in 1991 and has been a professor at UC Berkeley since then, with a joint appointment at LBNL since 1996. She has received multiple research and teaching awards, including the Athena Lecturer award from the Association for Computing Machinery in March 2013. Kathy is a Fellow of the ACM, a member of the California Council on Science and Technology, and a member of the National Academies Computer Science and Telecommunications Board.
1) What inspires you to work in STEM?
I became a computer scientist because I loved programming - good programming involves elegant design, exploration of mathematical algorithms and data structures, engineering tradeoffs, and a fair amount of sheer determination to debug complex programs. There is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment when a new piece of software is complete and working as desired. More recently, I’ve been inspired by the kinds of real world challenges that can be addressed with computing. I’ve been involved with projects on climate change, simulating the human body, and many other aspects of science and engineering. Computers are powerful tools enabled with sophisticated software to solve problems that humans cannot solve on their own.
2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department/Berkeley Lab?
Berkeley is a wonderful place to be a researcher in science and engineering. With the UC Berkeley campus and Berkeley Lab in such close proximity, it is a unique environment for attacking important scientific challenges. There are brilliant, world-class researchers in almost every discipline in the Berkeley community, so there is never a shortage of opportunities to learn about and work on new and exciting problems. The Department of Energy has the ability to tackle grand challenge problems by bringing together scientists and engineers from across disciplines in sustained, multi-year efforts. One of the Lab’s major initiatives is Carbon Cycle 2.0, which has scientists from across the Lab looking at technologies to create a carbon-neutral global energy system; computing contributes to a number of aspects of that research.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I wish there were a simple answer to this question, but I think multiple factors contribute to the gender imbalance in many STEM fields, including computer science. We know there are many smart, highly motivated young women, who go into fields like medicine, biology, and law, but are not as well represented in other STEM fields. I think a real issue is lack of understanding about what scientists in disciplines like physics, chemistry or computing actually do; there are few examples in the popular media and the fields may seem too abstract to young students. Why this affects women or some ethnic groups disproportionately, I can’t say, but I think programs that help explain what we do, and how it is used to solve important societal problems are at least a piece of the solution. At UC Berkeley, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computing Sciences has developed an introductory class called “The Joy and Beauty of Computing” to attract more students, and women in particular. Other schools are implementing similar courses.
4) Do you have tips you would recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
I recommend that people explore as many options as they can and try to find something they love to do; I consider myself very fortunate to have such a career. It’s also important to remember that beginning programming courses, just like elementary school arithmetic, start with very basic problems. Large computing systems and software projects involve teams of people working over multiple years, so you may not see the impact of what you can do right away. And while the individual puzzle-solving element of programming never disappears, the opportunity to work with other smart, creative people, often with expertise quite different than your own, is an important characteristic of many computing projects that you can get involved with later in your career.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
My main activity throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies was rowing on a crew team, and while I don’t row as part of a team or on the water any more, I do row indoors or jog almost every day. I also have a family and try to spend as much time as I can at their events, mostly watching them play soccer, but we also like to travel to interesting places for hiking or biking, whenever we can.