US Department of Energy

Women @ Energy: Katherine Riley


Source: US Department of Energy

Principal Scientific Applications Engineer Katherine Riley manages a team of computational scientists at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility. She received her Bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago in physics, and pursued graduate studies in astrophysics and applied mathematics. Focusing on scientific software architecture and performance, she spent several years developing an astrophysics community code, FLASH, designed to run on the largest computer systems in the world. At Argonne, she works in the Leadership Computing Facility as a computational scientist, supporting and developing scientific applications using the world’s largest computers and co-designing the Blue Gene family of computers.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

I am not sure it was any one thing that inspired me to pursue a career in STEM. I wanted to study astrophysics from as early as third grade and spent the next few years after that learning more precisely what it was. I learned about astrophysics from the book, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, so you could say that inspired me. However, it never occurred to me that I needed a particular inspiration since I found science to be really fun.

2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

Computational science is an immensely powerful tool. Proving high performance computing power for the best computational science work in the world is inherently exciting. We engage these researchers and collaborate on all aspects of solving high impact science problems with novel, forward-looking methods on the most advanced computing hardware.

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

I strongly believe that women will not have equal engagement until we have equality. Too many people in all walks of life, either implicitly or explicitly, believe women are not as capable as or equal to men. We have a lot of work to do in this area because messages are absorbed at a very young age. There are many specific issues related to women in STEM (like making sure there are mentors and good opportunities), but eliminating the explicit and implicit messages that women are “less” is the only way to really fix this.

4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

Computational science is a major pillar of scientific research, whether you are an experimentalist or a theorist. Learning to program and make a computer do your bidding early is incredibly valuable. For me, playing with programming as a child made it very easy to consider doing much more complicated work with computers. The next and most important step is learning some applied mathematics and numerical analysis. These topics are often overlooked, but they are fundamental.

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

I used to have hobbies, but now I have two small children—perhaps they are my hobby! However, I do love backpacking, cooking, and recently, gardening with my preschooler.

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