Kathy Yelick named UC Berkeley’s new vice chancellor for research

UC Berkeley computer scientist Kathy Yelick, an active scholar, teacher and leader on campus and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the past 30 years, has been named the campus’s next vice chancellor for research, Chancellor Carol Christ announced today (Thursday, Sept. 30).

Yelick, who currently serves as executive associate dean in the Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society (CDSS), will assume her new role as the head of Berkeley’s world-renowned research enterprise starting Jan. 1, 2022.

“UC Berkeley’s research community is uniquely positioned to tackle some of the world’s most important social and scientific problems, from climate change and public health to equity and social justice,” Yelick said. “I think it’s important to bring together diverse expertise and perspectives, and I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues across academic disciplines, from the humanities and social sciences to the physical and biological sciences, engineering, professional schools and beyond.”

Since joining the Berkeley faculty in 1991, Yelick has made a name for herself as both a preeminent scholar in the field of parallel computing and as a skilled and effective scientific leader. In addition to serving as the executive associate dean at CDSS, she is a Robert S. Pepper Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at Berkeley and a senior faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab.

Yelick also spent 11 years in leadership and management roles at Berkeley Lab, where she oversaw a variety of initiatives, including the opening of new computing facility Shyh Wang Hall, the founding of the Berkeley Quantum collaboration, the formation of the lab’s machine learning for science initiative, and the launch of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Exascale Computing Project.

“Kathy brings to this role a unique combination of leadership experience and institutional knowledge,” Christ said in a message to the campus community. “(She) is a proven leader with a passion for UC Berkeley and for advancing cutting-edge research. Her deep experience in managing a large and diverse portfolio, nurturing talent and expanding a highly complex advanced research infrastructure will be a great asset to our senior leadership team.”

Jennifer Chayes, associate provost of CDSS and dean of the School of Information at Berkeley, praised Yelick for her leadership at the new division.

“Kathy Yelick is one of the most talented leaders I have ever worked with — she listens, sees the big picture, and co-creates and implements phenomenal solutions,” Chayes said. “I cannot imagine a better vice chancellor for research, and we at CDSS look forward to working with Kathy in her new role.”

In the new position, Yelick said she hopes to act as “a matchmaker and a translator,” connecting faculty and students from far-flung corners of campus to build new and unexpected collaborations. “I love learning about people’s research activities, identifying our key institutional strengths and bringing them together to do something really unique,” Yelick said.

One of Berkeley’s biggest challenges moving forward is the campus’s relatively limited physical size and infrastructure, Yelick said. She will prioritize finding creative ways to update and expand Berkeley’s research facilities and take advantage of new opportunities off the main campus. She is also committed to increasing diversity in Berkeley’s research community by ensuring equitable access to research opportunities, starting with undergraduate research.

“I congratulate Kathy Yelick on her new position,” said current Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz, who took the position in 2018 and plans to step down at the end of the year. “As my computer science colleague, I have known Kathy for decades. Her extensive experiences in scientific computing, computationally-based research infrastructure, leadership at Berkeley Lab and knowledge of the Department of Energy will greatly benefit the campus’s research enterprise. I will do everything that I and my office can to ensure a smooth and supportive transition into this new leadership role for her and for Berkeley.”

A passion for problem-solving

Before beginning her first year of undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Yelick assumed that computer science wasn’t for her. “I’m what we refer to at Berkeley as a ‘computer science discoverer,’” Yelick said. An adviser suggested she take an introductory computing class her first semester, and soon she was majoring in computer science.

“I just realized I loved it,” Yelick said. “I loved writing software, I loved thinking about algorithms, I loved the problem-solving aspect of it — trying to figure out how to make something work.”

She completed both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in computer science at MIT, with plans to work in industry. But after presenting her first research paper, she was also hooked on research. That experience has inspired her to improve undergraduate interest in and access to research at Berkeley.

Yelick completed her Ph.D. at MIT and then joined the Berkeley faculty as an assistant professor in 1991, becoming only the second woman to be hired in the Computer Science Division. In her early years at Berkeley, she worked alongside a handful of other faculty doing research in parallel computing, including her husband, Jim Demmel, a professor of computer science and mathematics, whom she met at Berkeley.

According to Yelick, parallel computing can be used to solve otherwise impractical problems by divvying up operations over multiple computer processors, greatly improving processing time.

“What I’m really excited about in my own research is not just solving problems faster, but solving problems that you couldn’t really have practically solved otherwise —making impossible problems possible,” Yelick said.

In 2008, Yelick took on her first leadership role as division director of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center at Berkeley Lab, which provides world-leading, high performance computing capabilities and expertise to about 8,000 researchers each year, including members of the Berkeley faculty and scientists at hundreds of other universities and government labs. She went on to become associate lab director for Berkeley Lab Computing Sciences in 2010 and stayed in that position until assuming her current role at CDSS in 2020.

Yelick’s own research program has also been influenced by her experience as a leader. She is now fascinated not just with puzzling over computer science problems, but also with figuring out the best ways to use computation for research in other domains. One of her teams at Berkeley Lab is developing parallel algorithms and software packages capable of crunching massive biological data sets to improve understanding of environmental microbes.

“This new position combines my passion for research with helping to foster and enable other people’s research and broaden its impact,” she said.

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