The importance and excitement of team science — and how optimization research fits in almost everywhere

Juliane Mueller
© 2010 The Regents of the University of California,
through the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

I am currently a research scientist in the Computational Research Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. I got promoted into this position very recently. Before, I was one of the Luis W. Alvarez Fellows in Computing Sciences at Berkeley Lab. 

My education (MSc and PhD) was in applied mathematics. Early on during my Master’s education, I got interested in optimization and I enjoyed learning about different mathematical algorithms that were developed for solving application problems to optimality. The applicability and in particular the usefulness of mathematical algorithms for improving life and solving real life problems intrigued me. After my PhD, I went to Cornell University as a postdoc where I was introduced to optimization applications related to climate model development and the environment. Through my advisor, I learned about the different National Labs and their named postdoctoral fellowships which basically allow a recipient to develop their own research agenda. I applied for and accepted the Alvarez Fellowship at Berkeley Lab. In contrast to other National Labs, Berkeley Lab did not have an optimization research group. Some might consider this as a disadvantage because there is no senior person to give me guidance and feedback on my work. However, the non-existence of an optimization group also poses an opportunity. It means that there are many domain scientists who may have difficult unsolved optimization problems that they may not know how to tackle.  This means a lot of collaboration possibilities, and eventually, with some momentum and a lot of effort, even the possibility to establish an optimization group at Berkeley Lab. 

In contrast to the more academic setting that I had so far been exposed to during my education, Berkeley Lab offered a completely new setting of interdisciplinary work and opportunities to collaborate with domain scientists from all science areas. I reached out to many scientists to discuss about their work and to see if they run into optimization problems that they do not know how to address efficiently. Sure enough, I found many takers. Collaborating with domain scientists and the breadth of application problems I get to work on are the most interesting part of my work. I constantly get to learn about new science areas, I learn new terminology, and I encounter new classes of unsolved optimization problems. Throughout the three years I have spent at Berkeley Lab so far, I have worked together with scientists in climate research, combustion, cosmology, spectroscopy, light source lattice design, and plasma accelerator design. 

I mostly collaborate with scientists who develop simulation models to study physical phenomena. Although the scientists understand the physics extremely well and are able to model the physics with high accuracy, most simulation models have parameters that must be adjusted. This is often done based on the scientists’ knowledge and experience, which is a valid approach for some science areas. But in other areas, an efficient approach for adjusting the simulation model parameters is needed and sophisticated optimization algorithms (and thus my work) enter the game. The challenge lies often first in learning enough about the domain scientists’ work to understand the goals of the research. The next challenge is in formulating a sound optimization problem, and then finally developing new solution methods. The most rewarding part of my work is the excitement of the domain scientists as they are able to use a new tool to solve their problems more efficiently (I make my codes publicly available), as they see completely unexpected solutions that they would have otherwise never expected (which often uncovers characteristics of the problem that were not expected), and as their simulations now make better predictions and allow scientific results to be found more efficiently. 

The reason why I decided to stay at Berkeley Lab beyond my postdoc are the exciting and relevant problems I can collaborate on with other scientists. I constantly learn new things and most importantly, other scientists are completely open to explore new ideas, and they welcome the opportunities to learn about new methods. I have not met a single scientist who wouldn’t agree on a meeting to talk about collaboration possibilities. Obviously, being willing to reach out to and collaborate with other domain scientists is a necessity at any National Lab. Research is not done all by yourself, at least not if your goal is to do more than just publishing. You have to be willing to sometimes go out of your way (meaning your comfort zone of research topics) to explore new ideas. You have to be willing to invest a bit of your time in running some initial optimization trials to see if there is actually any hope at all for the domain scientist’s problem. But this also means that you can use these preliminary results as a starting point for a grant application. 

The soft funding situation (all of your salary comes from projects with finite duration) may make some people anxious at times. Somewhere in the back of your head, there will always be this question of whether or not you will have money next year. That’s a thought one has to be willing to live with, but then again, in today’s world, nothing is certain and I don’t feel too stressed about this (yet). But as mentioned, you need to be willing to approach other scientists, especially if you are a bit junior and not that well known around the lab. I started doing this early on during my postdoc already. Even if not every discussion leads to a project, at least people will know what you are working on and they will come back to you in the future if they encounter a problem they know you can help with. For this, I find it extremely important to be able to talk about my work in layman’s terms since not everyone has a thorough mathematics education. 

My advice for anyone who is looking for a successful career at Berkeley Lab is that you have to be able to work independently as much as collaboratively. You have to be able to come up with novel ideas to solve problems. At the same time, the concept of team science as introduced by E.O. Lawrence in the 1930s remains an integral part of the Lab’s efforts today, and the success of collaborating teams with mixed skills and diverse backgrounds has proven to be the best way to tackle the most complex science problems. Therefore, it is important that you stay curious, that you are open to new ideas, that you are willing to step out of your research comfort zone to learn new things and explore new science areas. The lab setting gives you the opportunity to grow. Take the chance! You don’t have to know all the details of everyone’s research, but keep on learning, keep asking questions in meetings — people are more than happy to explain their research to you. If you are still in college, attend some introductory lectures on topics that are outside your area — engineering, economics, programming. I found that the classes I took on intercultural communication were extremely valuable. National labs attract researchers from all over the world and you will end up in a very diverse setting. Having some kind of an idea how to navigate this setting effectively is extremely helpful. Lastly, be open to talk to people, volunteer to help at outreach and other lab events. It takes some effort, especially if you are more on the shy side, but it pays off, I promise!



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