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Women @ Energy: Susan Coghlan

June 20, 2014 - 11:52am

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Susan Coghlan is the Deputy Division Director for the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) and the project director for the facility’s powerful supercomputing systems including Mira, the fifth fastest supercomputer in the world.

Susan Coghlan is the Deputy Division Director for the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) and the project director for the facility’s powerful supercomputing systems including Mira, the fifth fastest supercomputer in the world.

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Susan Coghlan is the Deputy Division Director for the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility (ALCF) and the project director for the facility’s powerful supercomputing systems including Mira, the fifth fastest supercomputer in the world. She is responsible for overseeing the installation of supercomputers and ensuring that they meet the U.S. Department of Energy’s mission needs. In her previous roles as Associate Division Director and Director of Operations for the ALCF, she was responsible for the installation and operation of the world's fastest open science computer (TOP500 List, June 2008), the ALCF's 557-teraflops Blue Gene/P production system.

Coghlan has worked on parallel and distributed computers for over 25 years, from developing scientific applications, including her work on a model of the human brain at the Center for NonLinear Studies at Los Alamos National Laboratory, to managing ultra-scale supercomputers like ASCI Blue Mountain, a 6,144 processor system at Los Alamos National Lab. In 2000, she co-founded a research laboratory in Santa Fe (sponsored by Turbolinux, Inc.) that developed the world's first dynamic provisioning system for large clusters and data centers.

Coghlan has also played an important role in the Blue Gene Consortium, organizing Blue Gene system administrators around the world. She is well known within the high-performance computing community, and has presented numerous tutorials, lectures, and papers on her work. Susan holds a Bachelor’s degree in computer science with a minor in math from Sam Houston State University in Texas.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

I was drawn to logic and mathematic puzzles as a young child, and my favorite books to read were science fiction and fantasy novels. One of the first classes I took in college was a programming languages course. It felt so natural and was so much fun that I switched to a computer science major and never looked back.

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

I like challenges, and I get to overcome a lot of them in my role, both in project management and technical areas. I also get to hear about future computer architectures from vendors, so I learn about exciting new technology before it's out in the world, and that's always very interesting. 

But perhaps the most exciting part of my job is getting to see the spectacular results that our facility is enabling. With Mira, we have an exceptional machine that scientists around the world use to do amazing science. As a user facility dedicated to open science, Mira is available to any scientist in the world. We support the community at large to help provide solutions to the grand challenges of our time, including sustainable energy, a healthy environment, and a secure nation. We currently have scientists and industry running simulations on Mira aimed at developing better batteries, designing better wind turbines, and shedding light on the fundamental properties of water. The set of projects that we have running on Mira changes from year to year, but they are all looking at the largest, most important science problems that exist today. It’s very thrilling to be a part of that.

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

We need to make science more exciting, fun, and cool for young women, starting in early childhood and going through their college years. Part of this is encouraging them to be curious, to ask questions, and to be driven to understand how things work. It also requires breaking down social barriers and giving them role models and mentors to help them discover how cool science can be. Argonne programs such as Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day are a step in the right direction, but to really turn things around, we need the media, news, TV, and movies to portray women in STEM in a positive way.

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

Find an area of computer science that excites you and take the time to explore your options in the field. Whether it’s computer architecture, computational science, performance engineering, or visualization and data analysis, each area offers different and stimulating challenges waiting to be conquered. Follow your dreams and do not let anyone or anything prevent you from achieving your ultimate goal in the world of computer science!

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

I enjoy sailing, reading, gardening, and playing music with fellow Irish traditional musicians.

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