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Women's History Month, 2017: Francesca Verdier

March 24, 2017


Francesa Verdier

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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

High performance computing plays a critical role in scientific discovery, and researchers increasingly rely on advances in computer science, mathematics, computational science, data science, and large-scale computing and networking to increase our understanding of ourselves, our planet, and our universe. Berkeley Lab’s Computing Sciences Area researches, develops, and deploys new foundations, tools, and technologies to meet these needs and to advance research across a broad range of scientific disciplines.

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’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 energy.gov/science.