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Amber Boehnlein to Lead SLAC Scientific Computing

Amber Boehnlein.
(Photo by Brad Plummer.)

As of Monday, physicist and computing expert Amber Boehnlein joined SLAC as the Computing Division's new head of scientific computing, reporting to Randy Melen, SLAC's Deputy Chief Information Officer. Boehnlein's responsibilities are twofold—managing the groups that run the scientific computing systems, and working with the Scientific Computing Steering Committee headed by Richard Dubois to coordinate use of those systems. She will also work with Dubois and other stakeholders to develop a strategy to address the broader scientific computing issues at SLAC.

Boehnlein arrived at SLAC armed with a wealth of experience in both scientific computing and high-energy physics. A long-time member of the DZero collaboration and staff scientist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, she paid her programming dues as a postdoc working on the high-level trigger for the DZero proton-antiproton colliding experiment at the Tevatron, Fermilab's giant collider. She found that she liked it.

"At a hadron collider, triggering is one of the most interesting things you can do," Boehnlein said. "You only get one chance to get the right data on tape. As a matter of fact I enjoyed it very, very much. It was extremely rewarding work." Then she heard the news that the Fermilab computing division was hiring a staff scientist.

"I thought, 'Wow, this is really the way I can contribute.'" Boehnlein joined Fermilab in 1993 and worked her way from writing triggers and analysis software and emulations to acting as department head of a 35-person organization responsible for the computing facilities for all the Fermilab experiments running at the time.

"Every Fermilab-based experiment was within my purview for scientific computing," she said. Along with keeping the facilities running, Boehnlein spearheaded an effort to consolidate scientific computing groups. "There it was only one type of science," she said, "and it was time to try to get to a more unified way of doing business."

After seeing through the lion's share of the transition ("putting myself out of a job," as Boehnlein puts it), she accepted a three-year position with the Department of Energy Office of High Energy Physics as the program manager for the Large Hadron Collider Operations program. She also managed three Scientific Discovery Through Advanced Computing, or SciDAC, programs in which HEP was the leading office. She considers the entire SciDAC program a "flagship program of the Office of Scientific Computing Research's portfolio." According to Boehnlein, "the purpose of the program is to bring computer scientists and applied mathematicians together with the domain scientists in order to more effectively use advanced computing resources. It's spawned a very interesting and fruitful set of collaborations."

"I really enjoyed my time in Washington. It was a wonderful learning experience," but, after three years, Boehnlein said she wanted to move on to another set of interesting and fruitful collaborations. “I feel it's important for some people who have gained experience in Washington to bring that experience back out to the field." That's when she accepted SLAC's offer.

"The growing and diverse physics program here is extremely exciting," she explained, adding that she sees data management for experiments conducted at the Linac Coherent Light Source to be particularly challenging. "I understand the data volumes generated are the LCLS will be well beyond what people are used to for these types of experiments. In fact, there's a lot of exciting science going on here that is really going to be pushing the state of the art in various aspects of scientific computing, both in terms of hardware and applications development."

Boehnlein also sees opportunities in her new position to strengthen ties with Fermilab.

"There's a nice synergy between what's going on in BaBar with data preservation and long-term data management and what will need to happen for DZero, as the Tevatron program ends data collection later this year," she explained. According to Boehnlein, working together on this issue will make a tighter connection between SLAC and Fermilab.

Despite her excitement, Boehnlein said she intends to move cautiously at first. "The last thing I want to do is come out of the box and say, 'Well, this is my agenda.' I want to make sure I spend a lot of time listening to people, getting their requirements, finding out what they need, and working with them to put things in place. I want to make sure we work together to build a plan that meets the needs—the entire mission needs—of the laboratory."

—Lori Ann White
SLAC Today, May 4, 2011