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In Memoriam: David Skinner

September 15, 2021

David Skinner, a gifted and highly regarded member of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and the high performance computing community for more than 20 years, passed away unexpectedly in late August.

David came to Berkeley Lab and NERSC in 1999 as an HPC engineer after earning a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests included quantum and semi-classical approaches to chemical reaction dynamics and kinetics, performance analysis of HPC science applications, and broadening the impact of HPC through science gateways.

But his contributions extended well beyond his multiple research projects, and he was keen to enhance the user experience at NERSC with next-generation ideas and vision. Early in his career David led the effort to enable and encourage NERSC users to employ software version control and was the architect of the Integrated Performance Management automated application performance tool that was used to profile the entire NERSC workload for a number of years.

David also helped facilitate the innovative Materials Project, which provides open, web-based access to computed information on known and predicted materials, along with powerful analysis tools to inspire and design novel materials. In addition, he pioneered the solution of science gateways at NERSC to advance research collaborations and data sharing among science teams. In the past few years, David was pushing these concepts further, leading efforts to make data stored at NERSC adhere to FAIR principles (Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reusability).

Initially a consultant in NERSC’s User Services Group, David was promoted to group lead for the Open Software and Programming group, and in 2014 became Strategic Partnerships lead, serving as NERSC’s liaison for industry partners and creating opportunities for facilities, science teams, and the private sector to utilize NERSC supercomputing resources in new and innovative ways. He was also key in promoting and supporting Berkeley Lab’s involvement in the U.S. Department of Energy’s HPC4Mfg program, leveraging his experience working with vendors through the DOE’s SBIR program to help connect industry partners with supercomputing resources at NERSC for research purposes.

He also spearheaded educational opportunities with legislators on Capitol Hill as NERSC’s advocate with the Society for Science at User Research Facilities (SSURF, formerly NUFO), a non-profit organization that works to advance the success and awareness of the nation's User Research Facilities through sharing best practices, facilitating professional training, promoting efficient data access, and engaging the scientific community. David was very involved with SSURF for more than a decade and regularly played a role in their annual meetings and related events.

“David was a forward-thinking member of our community, always one step ahead in terms of envisioning how new science communities could use HPC,” said Jonathan Carter, Associate Lab Director for Berkeley Lab’s Computing Sciences Area (CSA). “He was also a strong advocate for users, particularly those trying to integrate HPC into their experimental data workflows.”

Toward this end, David was instrumental in the development of the CSA’s superfacility concept. A decade ago, he established a partnership with the LCLS facility at SLAC, recognizing that their detectors and increasing data rates would soon need HPC-scale capabilities. He did similar early outreach with the Advanced Light Source and National Center for Electron Microscopy at Berkeley Lab. These partnerships, among others, are now at the core of the CS Area’s Superfacility Initiative. Similarly, David conceived the idea of incorporating APIs into an HPC facility in 2010, and with colleagues developed the NEWT framework, a toolkit for enabling web applications to seamlessly access HPC resources. This early deployment paved the way for today’s Superfacility API.

Passionate About Helping Others

In addition to his many contributions to science and technology, David was passionate about helping others, both at the lab and in the wider community. He was a driving force in organizing and growing the CSA food drive during the COVID pandemic, and he was passionate about the Lab’s IDEA initiative; he was, for example, a member of, and ally to, the Latin American and Native American Employee Resource Group. He was also the face of the NERSC facility public tours (virtual and otherwise), where he was always eager to share his knowledge of the Lab and the ways in which HPC enhances and expands scientific discovery. Student outreach was another of his passions, and over the years he mentored multiple interns at the lab, always emphasizing the importance of working with students at all stages of their careers and lives.

“David was an intellectual leader at NERSC with a strong vision and commitment to serving the needs of the scientific user community,” said Kathy Yelick, former Associate Lab Director for CSA and former director of NERSC who worked with David for many years. “His ideas around the early ‘Science Gateways’ reflected his deep understanding of high-throughput data-analysis and simulation problems, where people run hundreds or thousands of jobs to explore a space of possible solutions. David was also a kind and generous member of the NERSC team who wanted to make HPC systems easier to use and more accessible to a broad range of users.”

In his 20 years at NERSC, David was a friend and mentor to so many colleagues at NERSC, Berkeley Lab, the HPC community, and beyond. He will be remembered for his enthusiasm for science, his willingness to entertain far out ideas, and his visionary ability to make connections between a wide range of concepts.

His kindness, inspiration, and support will be sorely missed.

An event celebrating David’s life will be held Sunday, September 19 from 1:00 to 5:00 pm in the 1200 block of the Dartmouth neighborhood in Albany, California, 94706

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in David’s honor to the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano County: https://give.foodbankccs.org/team/377625

David’s family has also set up a web page to collect photos and tributes: https://www.mykeeper.com/profile/DavidSkinner/


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.