Liz Sexton-Kennedy, a computing architect at Fermilab, remembers watching Powers of Ten when she was in middle school. The film, which explored physics at the very largest cosmological scales all the way down to elementary particle physics, ignited her interest in the field.
“I was someone who loved extremes,” she said. “I was intrigued and thought that I would either want to do physics at the very largest scale or the very smallest scale. Throughout my later schooling, I became interested in particle physics and quantum mechanics, a very different reality that required a lot of imagination to try to grasp it.”
Fermilab was the perfect place to investigate those extremes, and now Sexton-Kennedy’s career has led her to a new leadership role. In April, Sexton-Kennedy took on the position of Fermilab’s chief information officer. As CIO, she is responsible for both the scientific computing and information technology for the lab.
“Liz has demonstrated her abilities over and over again, from software design to data acquisition to IT, and she’s shared her passion for these pursuits as both an educator and a manager,” said Fermilab Director Nigel Lockyer. “With her background, she’s highly qualified to lead Fermilab’s computing efforts.”
While an undergrad at Rutgers University, Sexton-Kennedy’s interest in physics at the smallest scales fueled her involvement in a summer program at Fermilab where she worked shifts on the E619 experiment, mounting magnetic tapes for taking data and learning about the physics of the experiment. a.
“I was 19 years old, and the whole experience of being out here really solidified my interest,” she said. “At the time I never thought of actually making a living doing this. For me it was just fun learning about it. But I had some pioneering mentors in college — Tom Devlin and Mohan Kalelkar — who motivated me to consider a career in it. For a female, that was a little bit different in the field at that time. I didn’t realize how lucky I was then that I had these people that encouraged me in such a way.”
After completing graduate school, Sexton-Kennedy spent some time teaching at a community college in San Diego, but found herself craving the intellectual excitement that she got from doing research. She decided to move back to Fermilab to see if any positions were available.
In 1988, after working a temporary job in the Physics Department, she ended up accepting a permanent position with the CDF Data Acquisition Group, which was looking for somebody with a physics background who was enthusiastic about learning about the computing side of things.
“In my graduate student experience, I had some connection with the software and the tools that were commonly used at the time,” she said. “Being a part of a data acquisition group, a technically demanding assignment in computing, taught me a lot.”
By 2002, Sexton-Kennedy had worked her way up to the head of the offline software and computing group at CDF. In 2005, she was asked to lead a project to completely rearchitect and redesign the offline software for the CMS experiment at CERN, a shift from an experiment management position to a deep dive into the technical aspects. By 2010, she was asked to become part of the executive team of the international CMS collaboration.
Sexton-Kennedy’s experience as the current CMS software and computing coordinator has prepared her for the scientific computing aspect of her CIO role. She recently presented her vision for how scientific computing will evolve over the next decade, projecting the big data needs for current and upcoming experiments, particularly at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.
She is also working closely with her colleagues in the Core Computing Division to determine its priorities and direction in the information technology area. A focus for this division, she said, is cybersecurity.
“We want the lab to up its game in terms of hardening its defenses and making sure we’re not vulnerable to attacks,” she said. “That’s an area where I completely understand the need, and I’m communicating with very skilled people to learn how to carry on the work that they have been doing up to this point.”
Sexton-Kennedy said she is looking forward to setting a vision for what the computing sector will look like in 10 years and making sure that the lab is on the right path to get there.
“In the Core Computing Division,” she said, “we’ve made a lot of headway in modernizing business processes and driving the lab into the 21st century with paperless processes, and I want to see us continue that good work. On the Scientific Computing Division side, there are known challenges that this big-data revolution is going to impose upon all the experiments at Fermilab, and I’m looking forward to working to overcome them.”