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A Multifaceted Journey in Computational Science and Leadership


Deborah Penchoff is an accomplished professional, currently serving as the Associate Director of the Innovative Computing Laboratory and a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee (UT). Her impact is reflected in her leadership roles and diverse research focus areas. Since December 2020, as Associate Director, she has played a pivotal role in formulating, executing, and communicating research program directives. Her responsibilities encompass leadership, staff management, proposal development, strategic planning, and project development, often involving internal and external partners in scientific computing endeavors.

In her concurrent role as a Research Assistant Professor in the UT Department of Nuclear Engineering since January 2021, Penchoff’s focus centers on data science and high-performance computing (HPC) applications in radiochemistry. Her research spans exascale computing, artificial intelligence (AI) applications, selective binding optimization for rare earth elements (REEs) and actinides, nuclear forensics, and radiotherapeutics.

Penchoff’s career has been punctuated by impactful roles, such as the Director of the Institute for Nuclear Security Scientific Fellows Program at the UT Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy from 2018 to 2020. Here, she harnessed computational protocols to address national security needs and facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration.

Her expertise extends to education, with her former role as Co-Instructor of “Advanced Policy Process and Program Evaluation” at the UT Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in 2020. Penchoff currently is a Fellow of the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, where she serves in the Center for Energy, Transportation and Environmental Policy and the Center for National Security and Foreign Affairs. She has actively contributed to various professional organizations, including the American Chemical Society (ACS), where she holds multiple leadership positions and chairs committees focused on computational science, data science, and AI applications in nuclear and radiochemistry.

Penchoff’s dedication to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is evident through her roles on committees and commissions within the university. Her research contributions, encompassing computational science and modeling, and her involvement in DEI efforts have led to numerous publications and awards, including the 2023 UT Tickle College of Engineering Commitment to Inclusive Community Award.

An Influential Figure

Penchoff’s multidimensional roles in leadership, academia, research, and advocacy, including as SC23’s Plenary Productions Chair, underscore her substantial impact across scientific, educational, and professional spheres. Her commitment to advancement and collaboration marks her as an influential figure in the world of computational science and beyond. In this I AM HPC profile, Penchoff articulates a visionary aspiration of unrestricted collaboration across the scientific realm, seeking to transcend barriers and foster unity.

Deborah Penchoff

Associate Director of the Innovative Computing Laboratory and Research Assistant Professor, University of Tennessee (UT)

Q: What single event most made you realize you wanted a career in HPC/computing?

Penchoff: While in graduate school, I was working on a project focused on optimization of separations of REEs and actinides. This was critical to guarantee a national supply of REEs and to develop strategies to bind actinides for applications in national security. Throughout this project, I realized the power of HPC resources and how they could accelerate solution development for these applications. Since then, I have been passionate about developing strategies to connect HPC with research areas that can benefit from HPC’s accelerating capabilities.

Q: What do you consider your biggest contribution to the HPC/computing community?

Penchoff: I think my biggest contribution so far has been to develop protocols to facilitate HPC-driven tools to address needs in radiochemistry.I think my biggest contribution so far has been to develop protocols to facilitate HPC-driven tools to address needs in radiochemistry.

Q: In the past 35 years, what is the most significant overlooked breakthrough that has impacted the field in your eyes?

Penchoff: I have been in this field for a little bit over a decade. I can’t say at this point what may be an overlooked breakthrough from the past 35 years. I certainly look forward to future multidisciplinary advances in the field.

Q: What would you like to see change about, within, or among the HPC/computing community?

Penchoff:  I would like computer scientists and domain scientists to see themselves as part of a large team striving to develop solutions for needs critical in society with local, regional, national, and global scope. Historically, fields developed in defined areas of research, and great advances have been achieved thanks to efforts in each community. Moving forward, I would like for scientists to be part of a larger team with less defined boundaries to create an environment in which everyone can feel that they belong. This would allow everyone to contribute their best efforts to develop solutions that require multidisciplinary expertise.

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