Professional Feature - Ann Almgren

By Invited Professional Contribution


Let me start by saying I love my job. It’s the best job I never applied for (but that’s another story).

When people ask me what my job is these days I typically answer “computational scientist”. That job category didn’t exist when I started my career, which is one of the reasons I tell postdoc job applicants that I care very much what they’ve done in their career to date but I care very little about the name of their department or major.

I chose physics as a major in college for two reasons – first, I was relatively good at math and physics and liked them both, and second, of all related science and math majors, physics had the fewest number of required courses (yes I counted), and I was never someone who liked to be told what to do.

Even so, I was burned out on problem sets and proofs by the time I finished college, and I chose to try being the teacher rather than the student. I taught math and physics at an American school in Switzerland and had some amazing experiences (including reconvening after the winter break at the St Moritz ski resort where we had two weeks of “mandatory” ski lessons), but I also realized two important things: 1) being a good high school teacher is actually really hard, 2) I didn’t want to be done with learning new things myself.

I had always thought I would go to graduate school (the result of growing up in a family in which all the parents and step-parents are professors), and this was before you could apply to grad school from anywhere by clicking a link, so before I left the US, I requested the application for the PhD program in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley. Looking back, I don't quite remember why I chose Berkeley, other than I’d grown up in New Jersey and Berkeley was in California, with all the blue skies and lack of humidity I had only seen on vacation.

Starting graduate school a year after starting my short-lived teaching career, my first experiences included not having a place to live and not having an advisor. Both were surmountable challenges, and the latter experience was one of the many times that a little help from someone else went a long way. I had chosen to pay the bills with a research assistantship (rather than a teaching assistant role) that first year, and after my first week in Berkeley I decided I had made a huge mistake. I read the list of possible projects that professors were offering to first-year students and concluded I didn’t know enough to be able to do any of them. But then I got a call from a professor inviting me to come to talk to her about possibly working in her group. I was blown away by her belief in me, a complete newbie to graduate school. Two years later I had my first “advanced” degree!

At some point, I realized I wasn’t excited about a career in the area of my MS project, so I started looking for a different project and advisor for my PhD. With great fondness I remember advisor number 2 telling me in an exaggerated whisper after a conference banquet that Professor X in the department thought I was a dilettante, which brought to the fore all of my doubts and insecurities about whether I was “good enough” to be a real scientist (/engineeer/mathematician). Those doubts were quickly allayed when he followed the comment with “...but he thinks I am one too!” followed by a huge laugh. While I had been so quick to hear the comment as a critique of my abilities, the opposite was in fact the intended message: both my advisor and I had a large range of interests and didn’t want to restrict ourselves to working on the same problem for our entire careers.

The rest of graduate school should have been smooth sailing … but then advisor number 2 decided to leave Berkeley for Rice University in Houston, Texas. Now Texas isn’t New Jersey but it isn’t California, and I wasn’t ready to leave, which left me with a MS and having passed my quals, but with no advisor or plan. At that point, I filled out my Peace Corps application and was ready to wrap up my ill-fated graduate career, when again I was contacted by a professor who asked me to meet with him (I found out later my office-mate had told him of my plans to leave). He knew of a new professor about to join the department, and after a few conversations, I gained an advisor, a brand-new professor gained a PhD student, and in the end I successfully earned my PhD.

Many people know that the shortest distance (in planar geometry) between two points is a straight line. What people often forget or discount is that the shortest path is not always the best path. I like to think that it’s the line integral of experience along the path we take that makes the difference in the end. My path through graduate school took six years and three advisors, which at times felt painful. In the end, my path got me to where I am which I’m pretty darn glad about. But I also 100% believe that there is not a single best path, nor single best destination, for any of us.

After graduate school I spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study back in my hometown of Princeton (yes, back to New Jersey), then returned to California, specifically Lawrence Livermore Lab, as a postdoc in the Applied Math Group. At the IAS I published my thesis work and thought about new things, but what I found at LLNL – which is as important to me now as then – was that the people you work with can make all the difference. I found a way of working collaboratively that I had been looking for all along without realizing it. I have many fond memories of my years at LLNL, but one of my favorite was what we called “double debugging” – a colleague and I with offices across the hall from each other would each display numbers from a simulation on the monitor in our respective offices, and we would yell across the hall to verify that the numbers we’d each gotten were the same. (In retrospect the other folks on the hall may not have appreciated our approach, but it was effective!)

DOE moved our group from LLNL to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab on March 1, 1996. It still shocks me today to realize that I’ve been at LBNL for over 25 years. In those years I’ve raised three children, been promoted to senior scientist, been a group lead before becoming a department head, and had more fun than I ever could have imagined. I’ve learned repeatedly the importance of choosing your collaborators wisely – smarts and knowledge are only part of what makes someone a great collaborator – and of finding problems to work on that live at the intersection of three categories: those you find interesting, those you have the background and skills to address, and those that someone will pay you to work on.

So what do I do now? True to that prescient dilettante comment from over 30 years ago, I have fingers in a number of projects – all involving some sort of modeling and simulation work, from figuring out the right equations to model a given phenomenon to figuring out how to discretize the equations (in time and space) to how to implement the discretizations into working code that runs efficiently on my desktop as well as the largest supercomputers. I work with people in my group and in other groups at Berkeley Lab, with people at other national labs and at universities around the world, and with people in career stages from undergraduate summer intern to approaching-retirement senior scientist. My CV is filled with positions I’ve held and papers I’ve written, but my best memories are of the people I’ve worked with, the white boards and conference rooms where we’ve argued (in the best sense of the word) about our ideas, and the high fives (now elbow bumps) when we’ve celebrated a new insight or algorithmic innovation. All in all, not a bad way to spend a career.

Ann Almgren

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