Thomas Zacharia
Thomas Zacharia (hi-res image)

August 17, 2017

In an interview with Laboratory Communications Director David Keim, ORNL Director Thomas Zacharia described his introduction to ORNL and East Tennessee, building a high-performance computing capability from the ground up, his vision for the Laboratory and his thoughts on leading a world-class research institution in a changing landscape.

I. Amazing journey

You came to the Lab after someone approached you when you were presenting at a conference.  Correct?

That is correct.  So my first ever public presentation of my technical work was at a conference, as it turns out, organized by Oak Ridge.  At that time I did not know of a place called Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  As you can imagine with grad students, we drove 15, 18 hours from upstate New York to this beautiful place in East Tennessee.  After I gave the talk Stan David, who ended up hiring me, approached me and asked if I’d be interested in working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a postdoctoral fellow.  Just before I came to the conference I was told that I had another year or so to go before I would finish up.  Like any graduate student who is told what to do, I politely told Stan David that I very much appreciated the offer, but I had another year to go before I finished. As luck would have it, my advisor was in earshot of the conversation and said, "Well if you’re good enough for Oak Ridge, you’re good enough for me. Write up and you can go."  That’s how I ended up being able to accept this offer, which changed my life and how my family grew up and developed here.


You were married with one child at the time, is that correct?

That is correct.  You know, to take you back a bit, I came to the U.S in 1981 to do my master’s in Oxford, Mississippi.  My family gave me permission to come to the U.S. to pursue higher studies with the condition that I had to go to Ole Miss, principally because the only person they knew in the United States was a professor at Ole Miss.

So after I finished my masters, I went home for a very traditional arranged marriage, which means basically Sindhu and I were given 30 minutes to say, yea, nay or verily, this is who we will spend the rest of our lives with. My plan was to stay in India, but after we got married we thought that getting away from parents and building our own life for a few years would be a good thing to do – and also to get a Ph.D. while doing that.  And that’s how I came to the U.S. 

We had a daughter in Potsdam, New York.  She was supposed to come in late February, but you have to appreciate Potsdam to know why she chose to come at least a few weeks late.  Because Potsdam only has two seasons – winter and the Fourth of July.  The only car I could afford was a Volkswagen diesel, which means it's designed to work only one day a year, and she was supposed to come in the middle of February.  You know you have to be young to do these kinds of things.  We would park the car, and if you let the car sit for more than two hours it would die.  It won’t start.  So we would wake up every two hours, go out and sit in the car when it’s about minus 20, minus 30 outside. It takes about 30 or 40 minutes for it to warm up enough so you can go back and sleep a couple of hours and come back.

The reason I told you that story was that we drove that Volkswagen Golf, all rusted out, from Potsdam, New York, with everything that we owned in that car, including our precious daughter.  That’s how we came to Oak Ridge, to live in an apartment.  Our lives started at Vanderbilt Drive in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

And how long did you expect to be at Oak Ridge National Laboratory?

Oh, no more than two years. 

II. Passion and Purpose

Was there anything about your work or the folks you were working with at the time, that you can recall sort of changing that mindset from, "I'll be here, I'll get a PhD, start a career and head out?" Was there any point where you thought, well this is a good place to stay for a while?

It's really a series of accidents, you know. After about 15 months of being a post doc, I went to my group leader and I said, "How does one become a staff member here?" And he says, "If you excel in the work that you do, I'm sure we'll make you a staff member." … I joined the Basic Energy Sciences program as a computational scientist, and computational sciences was just taking off at that time.


After about two or three years, I went to him and I said, "How does one become a principal investigator?" Because that gave you a better idea of chartering your own career, having an impact, taking your own ideas and translating it into work that others would evaluate and recognize.

He said, "Write proposals. Get your ideas out there." I asked him, "Well, how many proposals does one write before you win one?" and he said, "Oh, I don't know, if you write five or so proposals, you'll win one. Five is a very good number." So I wrote five proposals and, as luck would have it, all five got funded. So that presented a problem at the time. I thought, well, five proposals, that's about a million, million and a half (dollars). So I went to my group leader and said, "Well, we have to staff up," and he said, "Well, you cannot staff up in my group (because) if you had that many computational scientists in my group, the character of my group will change."

Because the group at the time was what?

The Materials Joining group, what was then Metals and Ceramics. Today called Materials Science and Technology. Again, I was very fortunate, because I came here to do computational science just when Moore's Law was really beginning to pick up. One could say we were beginning to enter the second half of the chess board, if you will. Every doubling really made a difference. That's the kind of thing that a national lab offers. We had the Intel Paragon, which at the time was one of the fastest computers in the world--a very short period of time, but nevertheless--it was 150 gigaflops, about the power of your iPhone. But it was a big deal back then. And so I took the initiative to begin to leverage that capability, which made me visible to the associate lab director for computing. And so the ALD for computing called me in and said, "Hey, I've been looking to find somebody to run computer science and mathematics. I cannot find anybody internally or externally to take the job, so I want you to do the job for me. Don't worry about it; most likely it'll fail and I'll find you a job, if not at Oak Ridge somewhere else."

I'm neither a computer scientist or a mathematician; I'm an engineer. So perhaps it is my conscience, perhaps it is fear, I just didn't know how to say no to an ALD. Back then, I thought ALDs were gods.

What do you think now?

They're just mere mortals. So I said yes. At the time we did not know how to negotiate for a supercomputer. But we went to IBM, and what we could afford at the time was 20 cents on the dollar. After a little bit of negotiating for carpet, if you will--haggling--we ended up offering 20 cents on the dollar and IBM sent us a terascale system. So six months into this process we had the fastest supercomputer in the Office of Science. How does the Office of Science shut down an organization that has the fastest supercomputer in the Office of Science? Then undersecretary Moniz came to inaugurate that machine and ... since then the Lab has done very well in supercomputing.

So what's the lesson or take away that you would like ORNL staff to get from that story?

I would just essentially turn around and ask you this: Can you close your eyes and envision Oak Ridge National Laboratory today without supercomputing? Can you envision the scientists who come here today without computing? Because I tell you that 70-80 percent of our scientific staff has been here less than 10 years, which means they made a decision--consciously made a decision--to come to this Laboratory knowing that we are the best in the world in supercomputing.

If you have the passion and perseverance, good ideas get a hearing—if not the first time, if not the second time, eventually. You have to stick with it, you have to have a sense of purpose and commitment to achieve it.

III. Going forward

Do you have any ideas what the next big area is for Oak Ridge? 

I think first of all Oak Ridge National Laboratory today is in a tremendously enviable position. We have signature strengths in materials, in neutrons, in computing, nuclear science and engineering.  And when I say signature strengths these are areas where we expect, and our sponsors expect, to be the best in the world or among the best in the world.  That's a really broad area of capability.  And we apply that and the tremendous talent that we have to solve challenging problems in energy, in national security, in manufacturing, in grid cyber security. So our opportunity is to put it all together and challenge ourselves to take the next step and be that premiere research institution in the world. That in and of itself is exciting.

The next computer that we are deploying, the Summit system, is likely to be the most powerful artificial intelligent machine in the world. The innovations that are yet to be made with those kinds of tremendous capabilities and the ingenuity of our staff is something that I look forward to watching and supporting. Our Bioenergy Science Center has made tremendous progress in terms of understanding and manipulating biological systems.  Our Spallation Neutron Source provides us a tremendous tool to look at soft materials, biological materials and polymers, et cetera. And again, our computing capability gives us tremendous opportunities, so putting that together and really tackling some of the fundamental scientific problems, developing the foundational science and then translating it into the commercial marketplace for societal good, would be an exciting challenge to look forward to.

You mentioned supercomputing as being central to the identity of Oak Ridge National Laboratory now, and you alluded to materials and neutrons and nuclear. I wonder if you could speak specifically to what the future is of nuclear and neutrons. Those two areas at Oak Ridge, since they have been historically foundational for the Lab, what do you see in those areas?

The history of Oak Ridge National Laboratory tracks directly with the history of nuclear energy.  And when you look at both our expertise and capability we have really tremendous foundational capabilities in the breadth of nuclear science and technology.  It's something we need to protect and preserve because it's such a major component for our strategy for energy.  Energy security is national security.


We have a responsibility to work with our sister laboratories, particularly with Idaho National Laboratory, to provide important solutions and pathways for policymakers.  Having abundant energy at an affordable price point is essential for economic competitiveness and our continued leadership in the world as a country. 

You also asked about neutron sciences.  Neutron sciences is a fantastic tool and, in the United States, we are the stewards of neutron sciences capability between our Spallation Neutron Source and our High Flux Isotope Reactor.  Those two provide us a tremendous and unique  capability and it's imperative for us to make sure that they provide the ideas and the strategy for continued  leadership in this important area.

We have a plan for a fourth-generation neutron source in the Second Target Station. Our path to achieving that fourth-generation source is first to go through a power upgrade project, and we're working with the Department of Energy to achieve that goal.  And once we do that it allows us to operate both the first and second target stations together with the High Flux Isotope Reactor to provide, again, a compelling scientific capability for the United States and a leadership capability for the United States. 

All of this is happening in an uncertain budget environment.  What would you tell Oak Ridge staff about the uncertainty that exists currently about funding for our primary sponsor and science in general in the United States?

I feel confident that, when we finally have a budget, we will be well positioned.  And I will be working tirelessly to advocate for this Laboratory and making sure that people understand that we have ideas and capabilities to support our national priorities.

But I also have a message to our staff. Our staff members need to know that I have been here 30 years and I must say that I never in my 30 years felt at risk; and the reason is that I've been fortunate, in part, because of the programs that I've had the opportunity to work in and, in part, because of the hard work and dedication I've put into my work.  That no matter what happened, the work that I did was important. As individuals we have a responsibility, an obligation, to put ourselves in a position where we are central to the national priorities.  And if we do that –- if we put our Laboratory central to the challenges and priorities that our country faces – if we do that, we'll be fine.

IV. Building a research community

One of the last areas I wanted to ask you about is the growth the Lab has experienced in recent years in graduate programs and university partnerships.  What would you want joint faculty and students to hear about your expectations?

First of all I'm tremendously excited by the graduate students and joint faculty that are part of us.  They enrich us, they challenge us, and hopefully they gain from their experience. This Laboratory is a tremendous platform for graduate students to come and do their Ph.D.  -- perhaps informed by my own experience as a postdoctoral fellow here because you come to a laboratory with the kind of tools and capabilities that open up the opportunity space for you to perform research. It is a high priority.  I believe it is essential for ORNL's continued path towards becoming the premier research institution.

Ultimately in science as well as in sports it's all about the quality of the people you attract that defines who you are and how well you are regarded. Having this pipeline of people come and perform their work -- some of them will stay here, some of them will go and become a part of our sister laboratories, and some of them will go into academia, so we are helping mentor and train the next generation.  If you do a great job, they'll be great ambassadors for us and they will send their students back to us.

And maybe one of them will be Lab director 30 years from now.

One can only hope.


If a staff member has an idea about how something can be done better, or if there's something they think you ought to be doing, how should they convey that information?

First of all they should not even wait a nanosecond.  If they have a good idea they should reach out to my office. There are a number of avenues for them to reach out. I make it a point, whenever I can, to spend time with staff, particularly early career staff.  My office really works hard to make those meetings happen, in part, because I really enjoy it. Even when someone's coming to tell me I'm doing my job wrong, it still is a very invigorating discussion because I learn from the experience.  Sometimes they are right, and sometimes I have an opportunity to educate them about the challenges and why we do what we do the way we do it.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to staff as you begin your tenure as Oak Ridge National Laboratory director?

It's a great honor and privilege to lead and represent our staff, a fantastic staff. 

When there are difficult times, a challenging budget environment, sometimes it is difficult to realize that it is indeed a wonderful institution that deeply cares about its people.

In the mid '90s my father passed away.  I went to the division director and said, you know, I had a wonderful career at the Laboratory but I'm going home to take care of my family.  And this Laboratory and the Department of Energy really worked hard to come up with an opportunity for me to work remotely from India.  This was before Internet; we had to do it with fax.  The fact that the Laboratory and the Department of Energy went to that length for one individual tells me that this is an institution that values its people and is very supportive.

That does not mean that you don't make difficult decisions when it's called for, but it's really important for all of us to realize that we are here, we are family, we care for each other, we support each other, we live in this community. It's really important to recognize that.