The Supercomputer Specialist | Debbie Bard

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Spotlight on Hidden Physicists

The Supercomputer Specialist | Debbie Bard

Group Lead for the Data Science Engagement Group, National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab director Michael Witherell (far left) and Debbie Bard (right) share NERSC highlights with a visiting congressional delegation in 2019. Shown are (left to right) Witherell, US Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL 11th District), US Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA 9th District), and Bard. Photo by Thor Swift, LBNL.The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is the high-performance computing (HPC) and data center for the US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. We operate research supercomputers used by scientists working across the range of DOE research areas―including particle physics, genome analysis, materials science, climate science, and fusion research.

I lead the Data Science Engagement Group at NERSC. My team works specifically with scientists from experimental and observational facilities that need supercomputing-scale resources to perform their data analysis and simulations. We ensure that NERSC supports the tools, technologies, and software these scientists need to do their science, and we work closely with them to make sure they are able to use our resources effectively.

My job involves interacting with a huge range of science teams from a lot of different science areas, and there is often a language or jargon barrier. A large part of my job is translating what the scientists need to do and communicating that to our systems engineers. At the same time, I have to translate our hardware and software capabilities back to the scientists so they can structure their workflows to take advantage of what we can offer. The job also involves troubleshooting, which can be frustrating. Cutting-edge hardware rarely works as expected out of the box, and it can take a while to understand the hardware and work with our vendors to get all the bugs smoothed out. The problem-solving skills I learned as a physicist are really helpful here.

I’m a huge science enthusiast, so my favorite part of the job is learning about all the cool research being done by the DOE. It’s exciting to be able to support that research and enable new discoveries through our supercomputers. I’m also excited by the possibilities of applying new computing architectures to science problems. Working at one of the nation’s flagship supercomputing centers means I get to play with some of the most powerful and advanced computers on the planet, and I really enjoy figuring out how we can use these technological developments to advance science.

Physics can take you in a lot of different directions! My career spans research in particle physics, cosmology, machine learning, and supercomputing. Originally from the UK, I earned an MS in physics with French at Nottingham University and my PhD in experimental particle physics at Edinburgh University. I worked at Imperial College London and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory before joining NERSC.

If you’re an aspiring physicist, keep your mind open about what you want to do next―there are a lot of interesting options open to you. And take as many classes in computing as you can! Science today depends almost entirely on sophisticated hardware and software to run theoretical simulations and data analysis. Computing skills can take you between many different domains in science and in industry. 

Debbie Bard delivers a talk on advances in machine learning and implications for cosmology research at Google I/O, Google’s developer conference. A video of the talk is available at Photo courtesy of Debbie Bard.

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