Commentary & Perspective

Meet Valerie Taylor of Argonne National Laboratory

Valerie Taylor was more than happy to spend a day as a guest teacher in her son’s computing class. She decided to teach the students Scratch, a free educational programming language often used to introduce basic computing. Her son’s teacher exclaimed, “That’s unbelievable. How can you do that? You make it look so easy!”

Although the teacher meant well, Valerie was quick to discourage these remarks. “Don’t make it sound like I’m doing the impossible,” she said. “The students won’t want to learn computing otherwise.”

Presenting computing as a fun skill that anyone can learn, Valerie argues, is the best way to get kids interested in the STEM fields. Her own father, an electrical engineer, used the same approach with her.

“When I was four years old, my father and four of his friends started a telecommunications company in Chicago called Sonicraft,” Valerie recalled. “My father would take my sister and me to work with him on Saturdays. I would look at his workbench and would want to play with all the gadgets.”

Valerie’s father also made his love of technology a part of the family’s home life, building their first stereo himself. “Later, when we bought a new stereo, my siblings and I were shocked we couldn’t see the parts on the outside,” she laughed. For Valerie, engineering and technology were intriguing, not intimidating, and she eagerly went on to take computer programming classes in high school.

Now, computer scientist Valerie Taylor will be taking over as the next director of the Mathematics and Computer Science (MCS) division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory. She begins her new role July 3, 2017.

“Argonne has such a creative and innovative environment,” Valerie said. “The research being done is so exciting, and I am glad to be a part of it.”

Getting Involved with Argonne

Valerie first got involved with Argonne in 1991 after graduating from UC Berkeley, where she met Rick Stevens, Argonne’s current Associate Laboratory Director for Computing, Environment, and Life Sciences.

“I was introduced to Rick Stevens during SC 91, where I was presenting a paper at the conference,” she explained. “Everyone said I had to meet Rick as he was the new director of MCS at that time. Rick invited me to give a talk in his department, and I have been collaborating with the MCS division since.”

As a professor at Northwestern University, Valerie held a guest appointment with the MCS division. She later joined Texas A&M University as the head of the computer science and engineering department, and spent a month at Argonne during her sabbatical in 2011.

In addition to her work at Argonne and in academia, Valerie has received numerous awards for her research, and authored or co-authored more than 100 papers on high performance computing. She is also a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), is a member of our Systers Community and our Academic Advisory Council, and was a keynote speaker at the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) in 2013.

“Valerie brings with her a wealth of leadership experience, computer science knowledge, and future vision,” Rick Stevens said. “We feel strongly that her enthusiasm and drive will serve her well in her new role, and are pleased to have her joining our staff.”

The Impact of Supporting Others

Throughout her impressive career, Valerie admits her biggest challenge has been increasing the diversity of faculty and professionals in the field of computing. “While there have been some increases, the progress occurs at a very slow pace,” she explained. She blames this on the lack of encouragement minorities receive to go into the field.

“If you don’t have role models and don’t see people like you, it’s hard to consider a career in that field,” she said.

Despite this obstacle, Valerie has worked hard to encourage others to enter the field of engineering and computer science. One way she accomplished this was by volunteering as a mentor in a housing project in downtown Chicago, where she taught math and science to children. She accredits her desire to give back to her community to her father.

“My father instilled in me the importance of giving back to the community,” she explained. “He was an excellent role model as he has always been very involved with community.” Her father served as a Cub Scouts leader, taking his daughters along with his son for some of the meetings and letting his daughters participate in the fun activities. He also did professional training at a Chicago high school, and served on the Board of Governors in Illinois.

Valerie says she is also grateful for the support she herself has received throughout her career, including from Argonne. Although Valerie’s new position starts in July, Argonne is letting Valerie go back to Texas in August and work remotely so that her daughter may finish her senior year of high school with her friends and colleagues.

As she prepares for her new role as the MCS director, Valerie is setting many goals she hopes to achieve. “MCS has exceptional researchers,” she said. “My goal is to work together to expand the reach of the research and the collaborations, and to increase our visibility.”

Congratulations on your new position, Valerie! We look forward to all the achievements you and Argonne are sure to make!