Sharks, fungi, the science of color, special relativity... Growing up, Carolyn Albiston was curious about everything imaginable, and especially about how all these different topics fit together.

“I made the decision in college to follow a STEM career, because I could always indulge my many other interests as hobbies, but having a scientific lab or supercomputer at home would be difficult,” she jokes.

She has been at LLNL—among scientific labs and supercomputers—since 2011, but she traveled a winding road to get here. After her undergraduate studies in chemistry, Albiston earned a master’s in nuclear chemistry, where “all I did was program,” she says. She noticed that some scientists structured their programming in more effective ways than others. This ignited an interest in learning how to produce better code, and led her to begin her career in the software industry.

Albiston joined the Lab as an intern while working on her second master’s degree—this time, in computer science—and made her way through multiple projects before arriving at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). She is now a research software engineer in NIF Shot Data Systems, where she supports science, technology, stockpile stewardship, and fusion ignition, particularly in the area of optics and target visualization.

Working on NIF software bridges the different aspects of Albiston’s diverse skills. Though she doesn’t do any nuclear chemistry here at the Lab, her background helps give her context for what she works on and allows her to think like a scientist.

“What’s been pushing me is my interest in really difficult intellectual and technical challenges,” she explains. “I just find something that’s hard. It keeps me occupied.”

Albiston regularly attends Computing’s quarterly hackathons, one of the places she seeks challenges. She uses these events as opportunities to develop new coding expertise or devote focused time to completing work-related projects.

“The skill you develop in hackathons is limiting a problem to something that’s doable, a bite-sized chunk you can talk about,” she notes.

When Albiston says she has “many other interests” beyond science and programming, she means it. Her hobbies have taken her around the world, from weeks-long birdwatching expeditions in Tanzania, to virtual language immersion courses in Taiwan, to choral performances at the Vatican. She even sang on a recording of Handel’s Susanna with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and UC Berkeley Chamber Choir, which received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Choral Performance.  

Albiston offers two pieces of advice: Don’t blame yourself when life is unfair, and make lemonade.

“When life isn’t fair, I move on,” she says. “When I’m faced with a change that seems undesirable, I take that opportunity to look around me and see what I can do that’s positive, that I couldn’t have done before.”

—Anashe Bandari