Women's History Month, 2017: Francesca Verdier
March 24, 2017
Francesca Verdier joined NERSC in 1996 after NERSC relocated from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to Berkeley Lab. When she retired in 2015 from her position as NERSC’s Services Department Head, she had been managing user services at high performance computing facilities since 1990. During her tenure at NERSC, Verdier defined and implemented the center’s user services, first as a group lead, then as a department head.
What drew you to working at NERSC?
I got to NERSC via a degree in mathematics, programming to make some money, and a desire to help people. My math degree from McGill left me uncertain about the future - abstract math was not going to save the world. My mother suggested city planning and I followed her advice and enrolled at Cornell. There one of my favorite classes was the PL/1 programming language (so much more flexible than the Fortran I'd taken as an undergraduate) that I signed up for a special project using it. My advisor warned me that programmers were going to be a dime a dozen (this in the late 70s!) and that I should focus on higher level subjects. But, ending up "all but thesis" and penniless, I took to programming to earn money - analyzing dairy herds and fisheries in upstate New York (using SAS - what a lovely statistical package, even better than PL/1). I was in the right place at the right time - the National Science Foundation funded the Cornell Theory Center and I was hired to help scientists with IBM's new Parallel Fortran. I don't think I was ever a really good programmer; I found that what I wanted most to do was figure out how to explain concepts and techniques so that the scientists' lives would be easier. This especially revolved around good documentation - well organized, clear, with good examples. I moved from programming to management to put my ideas about service in place.
What are some of the challenges you have faced being a woman in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field?
The biggest challenges along the way have been about self-confidence; in this I have been helped both externally, by other people, and internally, by summoning courage. Friends and colleagues pushed me to apply for my first management job; I might not have done that without their support. A Floating Point Systems vendor pushed me to co-write a technical report (my first) with him. Bill Kramer, my first boss at NERSC, gave me a lot of freedom but also pushed me out of my comfort zone to innovate in areas such as developing a survey methodology and helping him create the structure (and presentations) for our first DOE review.
What lessons have you learned along the way that you would share with other women thinking about working in this field, or in a science/technology/engineering position in general?
Some lessons learned over the years: ask for help (this takes courage!), engage your colleagues to work with you, push them to improve, be supportive.
About Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab
The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) Computing Sciences organization provides the computing and networking resources and expertise critical to advancing the Department of Energy's research missions: developing new energy sources, improving energy efficiency, developing new materials and increasing our understanding of ourselves, our world and our universe.
ESnet, the Energy Sciences Network, provides the high-bandwidth, reliable connections that link scientists at 40 DOE research sites to each other and to experimental facilities and supercomputing centers around the country. The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) powers the discoveries of 6,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities, including those at Berkeley Lab's Computational Research Division (CRD). CRD conducts research and development in mathematical modeling and simulation, algorithm design, data storage, management and analysis, computer system architecture and high-performance software implementation. NERSC and ESnet are DOE Office of Science User Facilities.
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world's most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab's scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the DOE’s Office of Science.
DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.