Deb Agarwal


Today’s Identity Function post features Deb Agarwal, a senior researcher and head of the Data Science and Technology Department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Deb Agarwal’s research helps scientists in other fields use, analyze, and understand data.

Tell me about yourself and your background. 

I am someone who loves learning new things and helping people to achieve their goals. My work at Berkeley Lab allows me to do both. My hobby until about ten years ago was sailboat racing. I also was a competitive swimmer. These days I am much more domestic and gardening and boating have been my most recent hobbies.

My wife and I have been married since 2008 and have been together since 1998. We met through friends who had a sailboat. I used to race sailboats on the bay at the time and they docked near the end of one of our races. They had invited a few people to go sailing with them for the day and I came over to their boat to join them for dinner after the race. I met my wife there.

Did you compete in swimming or sailboat racing in college?

No, I wanted to concentrate on my studies and give myself the best chance at a good job after college. I was concerned that college-level sports would take too much time away from that. I also probably was not good enough to make the team :). In graduate school, I joined the crew team and loved that.

That makes sense. Collegiate sports are a huge commitment. Did you find it difficult to compete while in graduate school?

Actually, I found the training with the crew team to be a real help because it gave me somewhere to focus my physical energy and it made it easier to concentrate on my studies the rest of the time. The bigger problem is that I had already gone past my NCAA eligibility period, so in the end I could not compete.

Moving on — What are you currently working on?

My projects center around bringing together observational data to help improve understanding of carbon cycle dynamics. In this pursuit we work with researchers studying the tropics, large watersheds, and ecosystems across the world to bring together, QA/QC [quality assurance and quality control], and process the data. The goal is to enable scientific analyses and use of the data with models. In addition, we have a few research projects inspired by the computing challenges we encounter when we are working with the scientists.

Does research on carbon cycle dynamics present unique challenges?

Yes, for many phenomena that we study you can test your predictions by running an experiment and checking your predictions against the results. With the carbon cycle you are trying to understand a very complex system’s behavior.

It sounds like there’s a lot that can be done in this domain. Can you tell me about a particular project?

Well, one that started relatively recently is called NGEE Tropics. It is a DOE-funded project to work on understanding how tropical ecosystems around the world will respond to change. In particular, we are starting with trying to understand the carbon cycle in tropical systems.

We spent the early part of the project assessing what data is needed to be able to improve the models. Then team members headed out to the field to collect that data and to convince collaborators in the tropics to share their data with us. For example, our team went out and added sap flow measurements to trees around the tropics and leaf temperature measurements among other things. We also worked with researchers in the tropics to build collaborations and gain access to existing meteorological data and other data streams.

What has your experience been like collaborating with scientists in other fields?

It is really fun and challenging to work cross-disciplinary. We have developed techniques based on HCI user-centered design concepts. We use this user-centered approach to help understand the problem. We build teams that are a blend of computer scientists and scientists from the field, and work together to solve data challenges.

How are you able to balance your own research goals with user needs? Do you find that they are complementary, or are they ever at odds?

When we first started working more closely with scientists, we thought we would need to just decide to give up our CS research goals, and we did so that we could concentrate on the science. It turns out that working with the scientists so closely has enabled us to identify areas where there are gaping holes of need that no CS capabilities support. It has allowed us to write better CS research proposals and we are now also well-funded on CS research, but driven by science needs fundamentally.

One example is workflow tools: We kept finding that the scientists we were working with needed workflow capabilities but the existing tools did not fit with the science development process. We did an analysis of the problem and put together a proposal to do the research needed to develop a workflow system that better matches the needs of scientists. The resulting workflow tool is now available open-source.

What drew you toward your work at Berkeley Lab?

I love the opportunity to impact science and enable scientific breakthroughs by applying computer science research. I also really enjoy the people at the lab and working in Berkeley. It is a great environment.

You’ve mentioned before that you have not felt the need to be silent at Berkeley. What is the culture like?

Berkeley has such a long history of being a tolerant place that it is hard to imagine intolerance here. This does not mean that everyone is instantly accepting, but it does mean that negative reactions are caused more by ignorance and assumptions than any active dislike or objection. By being very open at work, I hope to help it be unremarkable to have out LGBT co-workers.

That’s great to hear, and it definitely makes a difference. Was it always like this for you, or is your experience at Berkeley unique? 

I was not out before I came to Berkeley. When I first came to Berkeley, a friend of mine was very deliberately out, and I really liked that she talked to people about her female partner as easily as any other woman would talk about a husband. I decided to do the same, and I have never felt that anyone discriminates against me. People mention my wife as naturally now as they would my husband if I had one.

In the lab’s Pride Month Profiles, you mention that hearing from transgender and bisexual women has been eye-opening for you. How so?

It has been easy to think of “LGBT” as “LGbt” because gay and lesbian issues have been dominating the national conversation. But at the last few LGBT lunches at Grace Hopper, we provided time for attendees to stand up and speak about their situations.

At the first one of these, there were people who stood up and spoke about being trans, genderqueer, bisexual, asexual, and so on. The challenges they face at work and school were eye-opening. It was the first time for me to hear these challenges, and it made apparent to me the need to broaden the dialogue beyond the current focus on marriage equality to other pressing issues our community faces.

For instance, at Berkeley Lab, we have a group that has taken on writing up a workplace transitioning guide to help trans employees. We cannot afford to sit still and be satisfied until the entire rainbow of our community has equal opportunities for employment and treatment in the workplace and in life.

Do you know how we in the computer science community can continue to broaden the dialogue?

I feel like I am still learning about these issues. I can guess at some of them, but I am sure I would miss many of them. They are really things we have taken for granted forever.

A good example is a gender selector on a form. Much of the rest of the community cannot easily choose “Male/Female” and do not particularly appreciate the choice “other.” This gender issue applies to bathrooms and many other things in the world around us that we take for granted.

What has your experience been helping run the LGBT forum at Grace Hopper? What advice would you give to people looking to start similar forums at other events?

I help run something that was started by BJ Wishinsky. She created and ran the LGBT activities at Grace Hopper. Julie Mariga and I have been keeping it going, and now many other people have joined in and are helping to run the events.

The best advice I can give is don’t wait for permission. If you see a need and want to fill it, start small and work on building the organization you want to exist.

Thank you!

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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