SIAM News Blog

Career Opportunities for Computational Scientists at the DOE National Laboratories

By Lina Sorg

The U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 National Laboratories comprise the largest scientific research system in the world. The labs began as an outgrowth of significant monetary investment in scientific research—including the Manhattan Project—by the U.S. government during World War II and currently tackle complex research and development problems in both commercial and national security settings. During a minisymposium presentation at the 2023 SIAM Conference on Computational Science and Engineering (CSE23), which took place last week in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Andy Salinger of Sandia National Laboratories spoke about CSE research and employment opportunities at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) 17 National Laboratories. “The 17 U.S. National Laboratories are the crown jewels of the nation’s research infrastructure,” he said. “We do a lot of big science. If you like working on big, hard problems on large multidisciplinary teams, this might be the place for you.” 

Salinger began by overviewing some of the labs’ most high-profile innovations and discoveries, including the following achievements:

  • Led advances in supercomputing
  • Developed optical digital recording
  • Created the toughest and lightest ceramics
  • Explained the biological process of photosynthesis
  • Confirmed the Big Bing and discovered dark energy (in conjunction with NASA)
  • Decoded DNA as part of the Human Genome Project
  • Reduced the cost of wind power by more than 80 percent over the last 30 years
  • Revolutionized materials for manufacturing, medicine, and transportation
  • Developed new technologies to detect explosives
  • Assured the safety, security, and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile
  • Discovered 22 elements and quarks.

Figure 1. The 17 National Laboratories collectively address a diverse range of science and technology challenges for the U.S. Figure courtesy of Andy Salinger.
“The work at every lab spans foundational academic work that you can publish to much more applied research,” Salinger said. “You can devise a nice career that is more research-based or applied — you can really trace out both.”

The National Laboratories are located across the entire U.S. in all four time zones. Eight of them—Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Sandia—are multipurpose (multiprogram) institutions that work on a wider variety of problems with broader missions than the single-purpose labs. Rather than focus on one particular area, every laboratory is situated on a spectrum that ranges from science and academic-like foundational research to more technology and corporate initiatives (see Figure 1). All of the labs collaborate with each other in some capacity as they work towards their collective goal of executing long-term government scientific and technological missions.

Next, Salinger outlined possible projects that CSE researchers might tackle. He drew an example from his own interests and noted that individuals who are passionate about solving partial differential equations with the finite element method could work in energy. Fusion is one such application, and possible tools in this area of expertise include Tokamak fusion simulations, implicit methods, time integrators, and compressible flows. “The amount of physics is just amazing,” Salinger said. “It’s multiscale on top of multiscale; these are really challenging and neat problems.” Another energy application is wind, and some of Salinger’s colleagues are presently using Exawind code to simulate turbulence and full wind turbines with moving meshes. “These all drive computational science and computational math algorithms,” he said. Some people choose to work in upper-level application areas and incorporate the necessary software, while others work directly with the software libraries themselves.

CSE research at the national labs also finds utilization in climate settings (see Figure 2). Some scientists model Stokes flow in the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, others predict long-term sea level rise, and still others work with fully coupled global Earth simulation models and atmospheric codes that run on Frontier software. For instance, 100 developers across all eight multipurpose labs are currently engaging with the Energy Exascale Earth System Model. “If we’re going to be advising people on policy, we really need to work on our verification,” Salinger said.

Figure 2. Many national lab researchers work in climate-based applications that include studying the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and running atmospheric codes in the context of Earth simulation models. Figure courtesy of Andy Salinger.

Finally, Salinger discussed engineering design application fields such as aerodynamics, structures, and quantum devices. For the last several years, researchers have been using a small device that optimizes the placement of dopants, electrodes, and voltages to trap single ions for quantum computing. “There’s a whole variety of fun problems, each with their own verification issues,” he said. “All of these problems drive research in areas like preconditioners, nonlinear solvers, and optimization.”

Salinger concluded his presentation by noting that the National Laboratories look for prospective employees with strong technical capabilities and the ability to collaborate with partners and on a larger team. “At a DOE lab, you can find yourself working on a huge variety of important, multidisciplinary applications that span energy, national security, pure science, and software engineering research,” he said. “You can build a career in any direction, it’s really exciting.”

Lina Sorg is the managing editor of SIAM News.
blog comments powered by Disqus