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Advancing Big Ideas: A Conversation with June Yu

August 23, 2023
June Yu


In this interview, June Yu, associate vice president for the University of California (UC) National Laboratories Office, talks with IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler about the entwined history of the University of California and the UC-managed National Laboratories, the technological advances made because of their collaboration, and the new University of California Livermore Collaboration Center.

You are associate vice president for the University of California National Labs office and a trained scientist, having received your doctorate in optical sciences from the University of Arizona. You’ve spent a career leading applied research efforts around national security and now you’re in a position of high-level leadership in one of the largest, most consequential public university systems in the world. How’d you get here?

We only have half an hour? If you went back and asked me as a child—would I be here? Not in a million years. I was born in China. I came here at the beginning of my teenage years and was adopted into a family that didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. My English was essentially nonexistent. The only thing I could really do was math. By the time I got to high school, I had already finished calculus at the junior college.

I ended up at Lawrence Livermore Lab to do my graduate research. That was a turning point for me. Well, coming to the United States was a turning point. Actually, there are many turning points that you can’t anticipate, and can’t plan for. Mike Anastasio, former Los Alamos and Livermore Lab director, said it best: “You do something you like, you do it well, and then when the opportunity comes, you take up those opportunities.” That’s pretty much my life. When the door opened, I took it, even though some of the opportunities were risky at the time. And I don’t regret a single decision I made. I only regret decisions I didn’t make.

Coming to the UC office, it was the same way. Folks I knew—Glen Mara, David McAllen—were leading the office at the time. They offered an opportunity for me to come and then when Kim [Budil] came to the office and extended that offer again, I took it. I keep wondering how lucky I am to get the opportunity to work with the people I work with and do what I do. It’s a privilege, really.

Since World War II, the University of California has managed three labs: Berkeley Lab, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos. This is a relationship that never fails to surprise people when I mention it. Can you give us a snapshot of the history of this relationship?

So, all three—Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which we affectionately call Berkeley Lab, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory—were born UC. The laboratories were funded by members of the UC—E.O. Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer brought the original contracts to the University of California. If you haven’t gone to see the Oppenheimer movie, go see it.

I haven’t seen it—it was sold out this weekend.

If you have the opportunity, go to a 70-millimeter IMAX theater. The book that the movie is based on is also worth reading.

The Berkeley Laboratory was founded by Ernest Lawrence out of the UC Berkeley physics department back in 1931. Los Alamos was founded in 1943 with the express purpose of developing the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. And then Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was founded at the beginning of the Cold War as somewhat of a competition to LANL in the weapons design area. The idea was that competition breeds excellence and innovation.

These labs still bear the DNA of their founding. Livermore is a big ideas lab, very fiercely competitive. Berkeley was formed for applied science, big science. Los Alamos was formed to win World War II. If you look at the folks associated with that project, they were preeminent scientists from across the country who Oppenheimer was able to attract to this isolated Mesa top to carry out this work. The national laboratories are known for embarking on audacious projects and ideas without really knowing at the inception how to get there.

When the labs were formed, the Department of Energy didn’t exist. Fast forward seven, eight, nine decades, all three laboratories are Department of Energy laboratories. Berkeley Lab is a Department of Energy Office of Science Laboratory. It conducts purely unclassified research, and Los Alamos and Livermore Labs are DOE National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) labs. They engage in both unclassified and classified research and execute a number of missions for the Department of Energy and other federal agencies. Collectively, it’s a $8.4 billion enterprise. It’s big.

What kinds of things do the labs work on?

These three national laboratories are part of the Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratory system, which are the crown jewels of our nation’s research and innovation engine and ecosystems. They employ thousands of scientists and engineers working on everything from developing breakthroughs in the energy technologies of the future, to unlocking the basic science of the universe, to stewarding our nation’s nuclear deterrence and nuclear weapons capabilities.

Your office—UCNL—does what exactly?

Our office is the smallest division within the UC Office of the President, and we’re responsible for UC’s management of these three national laboratories. We have a staff of 13. We provide contract management and oversight of Berkeley Lab and execute UC’s obligations for the LLC’s, the limited liability companies that now operate Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. Our office also helps connect UC researchers and capabilities with our three national laboratories.

On a daily basis, we protect and promote an intellectual environment of the highest quality of integrity in our national laboratories. We work to ensure that an excellent laboratory leadership team is in place, and we hold them accountable for outcomes. We also ensure laboratories perform with distinction. The phrase we often say is, excellent science and mission execution underpinned by excellence in operations. If you don’t have excellent operations, you can’t do science. Then, we work with our internal and external partners, many across industry, across the labs, across campuses, across the federal government, to make the best use of our resources and assets to help the labs succeed.

We’re not bored. There’s lots to do.

UC and the labs have a long history of collaboration. Why does this relationship matter and what does it accomplish?

That question really resonates with me because it’s a question I ask myself a lot. Why does UC manage the labs? Why is UC’s involvement in the Labs important when there are so many others—like industry—who are more than happy to be involved in the management of these laboratories?

UC’s DNA is deeply embedded into the culture of these three national laboratories. They embody the university’s mission of public service, research, and education, and they build around this large-scale, multi-disciplinary team science that’s so important for delivering solutions to the country. One of the greatest strengths of the laboratory, which grew out of the UC system, is the premium placed on the quality and integrity of the intellectual environment and the commitment to open academic competition and a culture of scientific independence and rigorous technical peer review. The federal government’s view of the relationship between the labs and the universities has evolved over the decades, and some barriers and restrictions have developed. So, we have to constantly work to ensure that the right details are always brought forth from the universities and others. It requires a lot of attention and effort.

When the two NNSA labs transitioned from being UC-managed to LLC-managed, there was a diminished visibility of UC collaboration. The instinct to collaborate was diminished. Since Kim came to UCOP in 2014 and I followed two months later, several of us have spent a lot of time looking hard at the question of how to reinvigorate and reconnect the university and the laboratories.

What types of things have the UC and labs worked on together?

Partnerships between the UC and the national labs have helped lead to significant advances in the fields of nuclear physics, energy research, climate modeling, material science, astrophysics, fusion ignition, energy research, environmental science, particle physics, computing, and many, many more.

If you look at the Human Genome Project—it’s one of the most significant scientific endeavors in modern history, sequencing the entire genome. This was enabled by UC leadership, direct UC engagement, and uniting of our three national laboratories.

More recently, we have started a bunch of other initiatives like SoCal Hub, which aims to bring the UC southern California campuses together with the labs.

You recently spearheaded a new policy-focused postdoctoral fellowship through IGCC, which is jointly sponsored by Livermore and Los Alamos, on emerging technology and international security. Why is it important for the UC and the national labs to work together on policy engaged in social science?

These three national laboratories have a unique relationship with our government. Their purpose is to work in the public interest and provide unbiased technical advice to the nation. They also contribute in meaningful ways to U.S. foreign policy.

Collaborations in the social sciences are just so important—and they’re under tapped—because they inform understanding of the human elements of the complex problems we’re working on. Social science ensures that when we develop new ideas, they are grounded in reality. We need social science to understand technology adoption, risk perception, policy implications, the emergent security environments. That takes more than just scientists and engineers. And the University of California holds incredible human capital in the social sciences.

For that reason, I didn’t hesitate when Brad Roberts, John Scott, and Neil Narang said, hey, we need to reinvigorate collaborations, let’s do this pilot postdoc fellowship. It’s the first step in a longer process to promote joint educational research undertakings between the UC systems and the labs. There are a lot of benefits to the University of California—including improved opportunity for students—and there are many benefits for the laboratory. It’s a pipeline for them. It’s an extended network for them. It’s a creation of a cohort of young scholars interested in being informed about their mission and interest in the laboratory.

Last fall, your office worked with Lawrence Livermore to reopen the Hertz Hall Complex as the University of California Livermore Collaboration Center (UCLCC). This was a labor of love for you. What’s the vision for this place?

UCLCC’s vision is to develop a UC multicampus hub to expand the collaboration partnership with our national laboratories. We want to be preeminent in terms of research innovation, to advance science and technology, core competencies, the missions of DOE, and workforce development. This is not just STEM. This is all disciplines. Our four pillars are: research, innovation, workforce development, and outreach. We have not advertised this facility yet, but word is spreading at the grassroots level, and we are already busy. It’s exciting.

The NNSA labs’ mission is first and foremost safeguarding the nuclear stockpile. I imagine that the politics surrounding UC’s role as the manager of these labs has fluctuated over time. In fact, IGCC was born out of concern among faculty about UC’s role—we were established as a center for peace research. I know that tension isn’t the whole story, but it’s part of the story. How have these concerns manifested over the years, and how have they been managed?

When DOE decided to put the Los Alamos contract up for bid again in 2016, some of us went back and read a lot of papers, and, boy, there are lots of opinions in the system about the UC stewardship relationship with the NNSA laboratories given their weapons mission. I understand the debate over the university’s involvement in nuclear weapons research. We saw that a lot of concerns were driven by ethical implications, and the potential for contributing to nuclear proliferation. Faculty and student groups wanted more transparency, ethical considerations, and divestments.

Personally, I would love to live in a world where there is no need for nuclear weapons or any weapons for that matter. But we don’t live in that world today. Ukraine has brought home to us just how complex and difficult the international security environment is. So, as long as the country decides nuclear deterrence is needed, we must ensure that the fundamental capability required to ensure that our deterrence is safe, effective, and reliable is viable and robust. And we need new generations, people who can continue to steward this capability. I can’t think of anyone better than the University of California in taking up that responsibility. UC has more than 80 years of experience in managing the operations of these national security labs, bringing in a deep commitment to public service and integrity. Who else would you want to steward that?

Your relationship with UC and the DOE national labs goes back to 1990, when you were a student at Lawrence Livermore, and you spent about 19 years at Livermore before you went to UCNL.

Not quite because I went off and decided I was going to be rich and work at a startup. Some folks at Livermore Lab went to do a startup and they tried to convince me that I needed to go with them. I was 31 at the time, and I said to the guy, “No, I can’t go. I’m too old.” He just started laughing. And I said, “Okay, I’ll go give that a try.” I did it for two years. It was a great experience. It gave me a broader perspective.

A lot of young people don’t really know about the labs—they think more about the private sector as a destination after university. How do you pitch the labs to grad students?

I think for many at Livermore Lab and Los Alamos and the other national laboratories, it really comes down to people, capability, and environment. I mean, it is the summit of some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. There are capabilities that just don’t exist anywhere in the world. And the intellectual and creative environment—it’s exciting. You’re encouraged to push the boundaries, you get to learn and be challenged. And unlike academia—and we love academia—you can work on large, multidisciplinary teams to tackle problems, whereas in academia, we tend to work as individual contributors or in small groups.

Most of all, there’s a sense of purpose and impact. I’m a public servant service gal at heart. All these pieces resonate with me because we do cutting-edge research and we tackle some of the most challenging problems of our time.

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