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David Brown Reflects on a National Lab Career as Retirement Nears

June 22, 2022

By Keri Troutman
Contact: [email protected]

David Brown

David Brown, AMCR division director

David Brown, director of the Applied Mathematics and Computational Research Division (AMCRD) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, had an unusually early exposure to computing: As a teen in the early 1970s, he was part of a group of high school seniors who were given access to the school district’s mainframe computer to learn about and practice computer programming. He was hooked.

Between his fascination with computers and his lifelong love of math, Brown’s future emerged throughout his college and post-graduate experience. “I naturally gravitated to using computing in the sciences as an undergrad, and my grad school geophysics studies were all about data processing for exploration seismology,” Brown said. “The most interesting part of that for me was the applied mathematics, which prompted me to go into a Ph.D. program in applied math.”

Brown moved into a postdoc role at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1984, which evolved into a staff position, and thus began his 37-year career with the Department of Energy (DOE) National Laboratory system. After Los Alamos and 13 years at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Brown has now served as the research division director in Berkeley Lab’s Computing Sciences Area (CSA) for more than a decade. He is retiring at the end of June this year.

“One thing I didn’t realize until I got here is just how much Berkeley Lab is on the cutting edge of science all around,” said Brown. “Shortly after I arrived, Saul Perlmutter won the Nobel Prize for work that was heavily computational –  his was the first Nobel Prize that really depended on high performance computing, and realizing that computing was having that kind of impact on science was really exciting.”

“Another thing that really struck me after arriving here was the contrast between Berkeley Lab and the previous national labs where I’d worked in regard to Berkeley Lab’s strong focus on experimental science,” Brown said. “So I made it my mission to figure out how we in Computing Sciences could better engage with experimental science programs around the lab.”

Brown made partnering scientifically across the Lab a main focus of the Computational Research Division (CRD), which was split into AMCRD and the Scientific Data Division last October. “It wasn’t that our staff weren’t already doing that, but this stated focus provided a recognition from the top of the Lab that this was important for our future,” he said. “And I think the culture changed to the point where it was recognized that the impact that high performance computing and mathematics could have on the activities of the rest of the Lab was really a key way for us to succeed and grow.”

This focus led to data science becoming an even more important component of the division and eventually to the spinoff of the Scientific Data division last year, said Brown. In addition, in 2014, he oversaw the creation of four new departments to highlight the Lab’s strengths in applied mathematics, computer science, data science, and technology research.

“Absolutely the most interesting thing for me about my job here has been getting to know all the fantastic people both inside and outside our division – researchers who are really working at the leading edge of their fields,” Brown said. “And my role as a division director is to help them have an impact, to open doors and facilitate bureaucracy and then get out of people’s way so that they can be successful in their scientific endeavors.”

Indeed, some of Brown’s biggest endeavors and contributions during his career have been people focused – with a special interest in younger scientists. In 1990, Brown helped establish the DOE Computational Science Graduate Fellowship Program, which was created to spark more interest in high performance computing. In collaboration with colleagues at Berkeley Lab and the Sustainable Horizons Institute, he also helped create and promote the Sustainable Research Pathways program as a way of connecting scientists from underrepresented groups (minorities, women, people with disabilities, first-generation scholars, and smaller colleges and universities) with scientists at Berkeley Lab and encourage the formation of ongoing research collaborations. He also created the annual Computing Sciences Postdoc Symposium, which gives CS Area postdocs an opportunity to be coached by senior staff on making effective scientific presentations that can reach a broad scientific audience.

“It’s clear that a more diverse workforce is a better workforce, and in retrospect, we’ve always thought about diversity of ideas in science, but we were not good about translating that to diversity of population,” said Brown. “You get more diversity of ideas if you access a wider population, and my work with postdocs is focused on that – since we hire most of our workforce directly from our postdocs, unless we have a diverse postdoc population we’d never have a diverse staff.”

It’s also the people at Berkeley Lab who Brown mentions when asked what he’ll miss the most about his time here – “everyone is so great, I’ll miss the regular interaction with the staff,” he said.

However, Brown and his wife look forward to having more time on their hands to travel, including in their recently purchased camper van. Brown is an avid musician – he plays the viola in a string quartet – and plans to continue to perform and devote more time to his music in retirement.

He won’t be completely out of the fray though, as he will continue to serve as a PI for the DOE Computational Science Graduate Fellowship program. “I’ll also be back at the Lab working on some special projects for Computing Sciences,” he said.

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.