Dean Williams Is “the Idea Guy” for Climate Big Data Efforts
For almost three decades, Dean Williams has been the principal investigator for several notable LLNL and Department of Energy projects related to climate “big data” initiatives, including the Earth System Grid Federation (ESGF), the Ultrascale Visualization Climate Data Analysis Tools (UV-CDAT), and the International Climate Network Working Group. These efforts have transformed how climate scientists organize, analyze, manipulate, visualize, and share climate data.
Dean’s climate career began with “one little visualization project”—a math-intensive cloud simulation he completed during his master’s program in computer science at California State University at Chico. After earning his degree, he was slated to take a job with Livermore’s “Brilliant Pebbles” space-based missile defense program until Livermore atmospheric scientists saw his cloud work and urged him to join the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center instead.
Dean has worked in the climate and earth systems modeling realm ever since. “What I love,” he says, “is that we’re doing something that’s beneficial not only to my family and yours, but to my grandkids and yours, too. We only have one planet, so we can’t just experiment with it. Simulation is the tool we use to understand climate behavior.”
And ESGF is the tool virtually everyone in the climate community uses to organize the reams of observational and modeling data climate research requires. As an analysis and visualization application developer in the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison in the late 1980s, Dean developed a concept for a software infrastructure that would facilitate the movement and archiving of large-scale data to empower the study of climate change. He successfully sought funding for the project and formed collaborations with dozens of international institutions to bring his idea to fruition.
Dean also initiated efforts to incorporate cutting-edge grid technology to leverage the compute power of several organizations and helped develop methods and tools for cataloging, searching, and downloading data. ESGF has since become, according to colleague Ben Santer, “the premier example of crowdsourcing analysis”; presently, 25,000 researchers from 2,700 sites in 27 different countries on six continents share data and tools via ESGF.
Says Dean, “The next step we’re working towards is a ‘virtual lab’ for users. Any scientist, not just the big climate centers, will be able to set up an experiment, run a model, store the results, and share them with anyone else through the federated system. This was our original goal in 1989. It’s just taken us a while to get there.”
The efficacy of the ESGF and UV-CDAT teams Dean leads has been recognized with “Outstanding Partnership” awards from the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In fact, much of what he does is form and strengthen partnerships within and with the global climate community. As a leader in his field, Dean is also frequently sought after to participate on national and international scientific advisory boards. “These days, I don’t do much coding. I’m the idea guy,” he admits. When he is not traveling, Dean can usually be found participating in an international teleconference, writing a funding proposal, or leading a meeting with one of his teams.
While among the most respected and recognized faces in the climate community, Dean is also devoted to inspiring future science, technology, engineering and mathematics innovators. “Science has always been fun for me, but I wasn’t exposed to it so much as a kid,” he notes. As a speaker in the Science on Saturdays series, he teaches general audiences about data modeling, visualizations, high performance computing, and networking technologies, while as a frequent summer scholar mentor, he showcases how science is conducted at a national laboratory.
Dean’s interactive energy and climate simulation game is used in schools and at science fairs throughout the nation. His teaching skills extend beyond science, too. Once a gifted high school and college athlete, Dean has coached individuals and teams in track for decades. He is currently working with one of California’s rising track stars, who also happens to be his niece.