The Science of National Security
Cal State East Bay alumni lead key projects, teams at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Behind its tall fences and guarded gates, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is an icon of the East Bay region — and a 7,700-acre campus abuzz with scientific and technological experiments that are changing the world.
Formerly a U.S. naval air station, the lab opened in September 1952 after the race to create a hydrogen bomb led Bay Area scientists Ernest O. Lawrence and Edward Teller to push the federal government for a second national laboratory to accelerate the program. These days, the lab employs several thousand people, all working to strengthen the nation’s security through science and technology.
At the 10-story National Ignition Facility, that means shooting 192 high-powered laser beams into a target no bigger than a pencil eraser to mimic the temperatures found at the center of giant planets and nuclear weapons. In a nearby building, it means refurbishing warheads and improving the assessment and condition of stockpiled weapons. Across campus, it takes the form of biologists conducting experiments to address challenges related to chemical security, bioenergy and human health. Still elsewhere, laboratory scientists use high-performance computing (simulation) to study everything from nanoscale mechanics to natural and human influences on the Earth’s climate.
At LLNL’s core — 226 Cal State East Bay graduates are scientists, accountants, public relations specialists and managers, each playing their part in the work of the nation’s largest federal lab.
B.S. ’94, Computer Science
Title: Computational Physicist
Years at LLNL: 15
Perhaps the most iconic project at LLNL is housed within the National Ignition Facility, home to the world’s largest laser. It’s also where Cal State East Bay alumnus Aaron Fisher got his start as a postdoc at the lab running simulations for the NIF.
“I was writing the simulation software for the largest laser in the world, it was a very cool experience,” Fisher said.
All major programs at the lab rely on the interaction between computer simulations and experiments. Since the 1980s, the combination of the two has contributed to the development of new strategic weapons, including a nuclear bomb that could be delivered at a low altitude and effectively helped the U.S. win the Cold War. Throughout the lab’s many divisions, scientists including Fisher use simulations to predict how systems will perform under various extreme conditions. The data gathered is then put back into computer models to make them more accurate.
The simulations allow for extensive experimentation while reducing the cost and time it takes to do experiments. After about four years, Fisher transitioned out of the NIF division and began working on simulation software used to determine blast loads.
“Essentially, we were determining if someone blows up a bomb near this bridge, will the bridge fall down?” he said.
He’s now modeling projects for the steel industry. The lab, sponsored by the Department of Energy, works with several companies to match technical problems with computing talent in the lab — problems such as modeling the iron smelting process to make it more energy efficient or modeling new ways to roll steel sheets. Fisher said he saw the work as a good way to start leading small projects. He also finds it intrinsically satisfying.
“These are projects that are solving problems outside the laboratory, real-world problems,” Fisher said. “Plus, there’s no end to the problems you can tackle with simulation and avoid spending the resources to build a giant testing apparatus.”
Fisher said since his early days at Cal State East Bay, he knew he wanted to go into simulation. He said the mathematics and computer science classes he took were a crucial link to his career.
“Simulation seemed like a good way to use my talents in mathematics to actually make a difference,” Fisher said.
Title: Software Manager for WCI
Cal State East Bay MBA student Ajay Thakur’s grin (especially when paired with his impressive mustache) lights up the offices of LLNL. But behind his easy smile, Thakur is in charge of an essential branch of the lab — critical application development for Weapons and Complex Integration.
Along with other laboratories within the National Nuclear Security Administration Complex, WCI, as it’s more commonly known, works to establish a science-based understanding of nuclear weapons. It also assesses the safety, security and effectiveness of the national stockpile.
“I deal with the classified of classified information,” Thakur said. “We provide national defense, and we need to make sure we are able to provide what the country’s defense system is expecting of us.”
For Thakur and his team of around 15 computer scientists, that means working with clients to find out what research they are working on and identifying their software and security needs.
Eight years ago, Thakur was hired at the lab as a software developer. Several years later, he was appointed to a management role, which he says was a struggle. When someone suggested an MBA, he remembered Cal State East Bay from his wife’s tenure at the university as an undergraduate and when the pair lived on Carlos Bee Boulevard. Since starting his MBA, he’s looked to the university several times to grow his team, most recently hiring a graduate of the computer science program in December 2017.
He takes classes at night and said he’s already implementing many of the skills he’s learned into his workday.
“The biggest thing I’ve been able to use so far is the data analytical portion and using data to analyze the work my clients are looking for and whether what we’re doing is efficient and helpful to them,” Thakur said. “It’s [also] helped me with public speaking, with accounting … it’s intense, and with working full time it’s challenging, but it’s changed my life, and I wish I would’ve done it a long time back.”
B.S. ’94, Computer Science
Title: Deputy Chief Information Office
Years at LLNL: 26
The year was 1992, and Sue Marlais was one of the only women enrolled in then-CSU Hayward’s computer science program. But that never stopped the former secretary-turned-software developer at LLNL, and 26 years later, she’s still one of few women at the table — now as the deputy CIO.
“I love the fact that we’re bringing new technology into the lab, helping employees be more productive, providing solutions that will help them get their job done,” Marlais said. “We support the very important mission of the laboratory, which in turn supports this country.”
Among her greatest accomplishments at the lab: petitioning to allow employees in classified areas to carry their personal cell phones. It took years of effort and mountains of bureaucratic paperwork, but Marlais said it did wonders to boost morale.
“It may not seem like a big deal to some people, but it was a morale issue, and that’s a big concern of mine,” Marlais said. “We had employees who couldn’t have their personal phones with them [so] I fought the bureaucracy, and I got them in.”
These days, a typical day for Marlais includes a lot of meetings.
Budget meetings. Program reviews. Project reviews. Conference calls with Washington D.C. about federal cybersecurity. Brainstorming sessions with the lab’s sister campus in Los Alamos, New Mexico. And of course, plenty of technology. But that hasn’t always been the case.
“We’re certainly more modernized now than when I first started,” Marlais said. “IT was not what it is today — a lot of people were still using typewriters, the first Macs were just out, it was different.”
Like many of the alumni working at LLNL, Marlais looks back fondly on her experience at the university and credits the computer science department’s high expectations for her success.
“It helped set me up for where I am now,” she said. “I had some really tough professors that were also role models for me and gave me the confidence to know that I could do this technical work.”
Smartest Square Mile on Earth
The programs and facilities that make up the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory span one square mile, what some call “the smartest square mile on Earth.” Here are some stats to hang that claim on:
• Established in 1952
• 6,586 employees
• 2,700 scientists and engineers
• $1.92 billion budget
• 531 buildings/trailers
• 700 visiting scientists, teachers and students