Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 25  |  Friday, October 18, 2002  |  Number 17
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Up with People

by Mike Perricone

Combine decades of cyber savvy with a grandmother’s steadfast humanity, and the result is Vicky White, the new head of Fermilab’s Computing Division. Not only did her formal remarks accepting the appointment emphasize her goal of making the division a caring place to work; her slides included a photo of her infant granddaughter as a symbol of the future, and she said her door was open if someone needed a hug.

“People did find it very unusual for that kind of presentation,” White said in her soft but distinct British accent, “but I ’ve gotten nothing but good comments on it. One of my roles is to set the tone of the division, and cooperation and respect will be very important.”

Vicky White takes over the Computing Division on November 1. She wants to set a specific tone for the Division.“How people feel about themselves and their work, their families, how they feel about coming to work each day — these are very important issues,” she says. White helped develop the SAM distributed computing system while shuttling between Fermilab and DOE.

White, whose Fermilab service dates back to 1973, will assume her new duties on November 1. She succeeds Matthias Kasemann, who is moving to CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. Culminating an 11-month effort by a search committee, White’s appointment was announced on September 25 by Fermilab Director Michael Witherell, at an all-hands meeting of the Computing Division in Ramsey Auditorium.

“Division heads at Fermilab are given a task that is close to impossible,” Witherell said.“They are asked to carry out a large number of demanding projects with resources that often are not quite up to the job.”

Witherell said the search committee looked within the lab and outside the lab, seeking someone with management skills, technical expertise, a vision for the future, and “the ability to coordinate the many relationships with the outside world that are now an important part of Fermilab computing.”

“The other directors and I were very pleased that the search concluded that one of our own provided the best match,” Witherell continued. “With Vicky White, the Computing Division will keep Fermilab at the top of its game, and at the head of physics research.”

White is still in transition from her duties as computing adviser to Peter Rosen, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Associate Director of High-Energy and Nuclear Physics. In 3-1/2 years of commuting to Washington, White coordinated the high-energy and nuclear physics programs in SCIDAC — the DOE’s Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing initiative, a five-year program to develop computing software and hardware infrastructure needed to use terascale computers in advancing research programs in basic energy sciences, biological and environmental research fusion energy sciences, and high-energy and nuclear physics. Specifically, White had major management responsibilities for the National Computational Infrastructure for Lattice Gauge Theory, focusing on simulations of Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD) at nine institutions including Fermilab; the Particle Physics Data Grid, developing a worldwide distributed computing model of current and future high-energy and nuclear physics experiments (Fermilab is one of 10 institutions involved); the advanced computing effort for accelerator simulations (14 institutions,including Fermilab), and two astrophysics simulations projects, as well as coordinating joint DOE-National Science Foundation efforts on LHC computing issues.

The Feynman Computing Center, headquarters of Fermilab's Computing Division.

The transition between appointments is an active if not hectic one. Before being interviewed for this article on a Wednesday morning, White had returned from CERN late Tuesday evening; she boarded a flight for Washington early Wednesday evening after a close-scheduled day at the lab. After 3-1/2 years, she firmly states that she has “nothing but good things to say about the people at DOE,” also lauding Marvin Goldberg, her NSF contact on LHC computing. At DOE,the feeling is mutual.

“Vicky did a truly outstanding job on computing for the Office of High Energy and Nuclear Physics,” said Rosen.“Vicky organized our efforts in terascale computing for the SciDAC program, in such areas as Lattice QCD, accelerator systems simulation, supernova explosions, and the mammoth tasks of data management and mining for high energy physics. She has done a great deal for LHC computing, especially in the area of grids and networking.

“Fermilab is very fortunate indeed to have Vicky as the head of its computing division,” Rosen continued.“Her knowledge, skill, and diplomacy will be a tremendous asset to the lab.”

On Nov.1, White begins her second tour in Computing Division management, though there’s been no break in her involvement. She was deputy division head under Joel Butler from 1993 to 1996, a time of preparing for Run II computing, dealing with the expansion of desktop technology and upgrading the division’s information systems. During her DOE appointment, she also worked on developing SAM-Grid, a distributed computing system for DZero, which is now being used at CDF as well. And already, she has asked people in the division for briefing papers on issues they will face — one-pagers in which she wants them to “tell me the message,get to the essence of the communication you want to make, not something that needs to be teased out of a presentation with 30 slides.”

Members of the Computing Division gather outside the Feynman Computing Center.

Grandmother,yes; pushover,no. But White has firm priorities,and she said one of them would be insisting on a sense of balance in the way the division operates.

“It’s very easy for people to run themselves ragged,” she said.“This is a very exciting place to work, and people work their tails off. But it’s important that no one is working so hard that they take off in a direction that perhaps they shouldn’t. I want the mission statement of the division to make it clear that nothing will get done without a very good atmosphere of cooperation. How people feel about themselves and their work,their families, how they feel about coming to work each day — these are very important issues. The world around us is moving and changing. To succeed, we must be able to grow and change with it. We need to put people where they are needed, and we need to make sure that the message gets out to all our people about why their job counts in the mission of the laboratory.”

White is married to theoretical physicist Alan White of Argonne National Laboratory. They live in Wheaton and have two grown children: Bruno,26, and Natasha,22. Bruno has a physics degree and works in financial computing; he and his wife, Banu, are the parents of Lara Elizabeth, featured prominently in White’s introductory talk. Natasha, a cellist, has recently completed a degree in music.

White was born in Bromley, Kent in England. She grew up in South London, and attended Cambridge University with a degree in math. She taught high school math in Cambridge before joining Fermilab (then the National Accelerator Laboratory)in 1973 as a scientific programmer, then moved on to Lawrence Berkeley Lab and CERN, and resettled at Fermilab in 1981. That experience is now prologue for the Computing Division future.

“We have a huge and exciting program, with LHC, Run II, MINOS, our accelerators, and many other important physics and astrophysics experiments,” White said.“We have an enormously important role to play in physics. We must serve everyone better so that we can position ourselves better for the future.”

Fermilab Computing Division: www.fnal.gov/cd/
Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing: www.osti.gov/scidac/

last modified 10/18/2002   email Fermilab