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Esteemed Alumnus Returns to the Center

Headshot of Kelvin Droegemeier on top of a blue background image of datapoints.

University of Illinois alumni often say there is something akin to a gravity well in Urbana-Champaign. In many places on campus, you’ll find UIUC alumni employed, returning to the memories and atmosphere of accomplishment that these grounds are steeped in. NCSA’s newest faculty affiliate, Kelvin Droegemeier, is no stranger to this pull.

Droegemeier earned his master’s degree in atmospheric sciences from UIUC in 1982. He followed that up with a Ph.D. in 1985. In the years since he graduated, he’s had a number of achievements. Among his many esteemed roles as a research meteorologist, Droegemeier led the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has been a member of the faculty at the University of Oklahoma since 1985, served as University of Oklahoma’s vice president for research from 2009-2018 and even served as acting director of the National Science Foundation for a few months in 2020.

Droegemeier brings all this experience and knowledge to UIUC and NCSA as he returns to his alma mater this year. “Coming back to U of I will be just like coming home. I’m looking forward to investing my heart and soul in a place that has very special meaning to my wife and me, as she also has graduate degrees from the U of I. It’s part of our family, our DNA and our hearts,” said Droegemeier. “Illinois is one of the top universities on the planet. It’s got extraordinary leadership, extraordinary faculty and facilities. And there’s a deep history and legacy of innovation; there’s no shortage of big ideas on campus.”

But Droegemeier isn’t just returning to UIUC – he’s also coming back home to the supercomputing center that his advisor helped establish as one of the first academic supercomputing centers in the United States.

“I was a graduate student at UIUC when my advisor, Bob Wilhelmson, and Larry Smarr joined forces to write the proposal that created NCSA and led NSF to establish five supercomputing centers around the country,” Droegemeier said. “I was privileged to watch from the sidelines and read drafts of the document. Bob involved me in the NSF proposals he developed throughout the years, so these experiences – which included meeting with NSF officials – proved valuable when I finished my Ph.D. and joined the faculty of the University of Oklahoma. Also, I had two foci as a graduate student – atmospheric sciences and high-performance computing. This dual emphasis played a major role throughout my career and even continues doing so today.”

NCSA hopes to leverage Droegemeier’s experience to expand on the Center’s groundbreaking work in predicting severe weather. Droegemeier has had a long and storied career when it comes to weather research. He led the early development of the world’s first computer model capable of predicting small-scale weather phenomena like thunderstorms. In this, his work and NCSA once again mingled, as the resources Droegemeier used to create these models were operated by NCSA, where Droegemeier served for many years on the resource allocation board. He also co-founded the NSF Science and Technology Center for the Analysis and Prediction of Storms and directed the center from 1994-2006.

Portrait of William "Bill" Gropp.

In addition to his appointment as a professor in the atmospheric sciences department and as an NCSA faculty affiliate, Droegemeier will also be advising the chancellor on federal initiatives, policies and strategic opportunities in the broad areas of sustaining climate, predicting climate shifts and ensuring the resiliency of our ecosystems. As a pioneer in numerical forecasting of storms, Drogemeier’s research will bolster NCSA’s efforts to model storms and predict severe weather events.

“I’m working on a number of projects/ideas for which NCSA provides unique expertise and facilities,” said Droegemeier. “These range from very fine-scale modeling of the Earth system to understanding the fundamental predictability limits of everything – from the spread of disease to weather and climate to educational attainment to the economy to terrorism.”

“Dr. Droegemeier has spent decades investigating complex weather systems and their impact on society – profound work that beautifully aligns with the university’s land-grant mission,” said Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Susan Martinis,. “That perspective and his track record of service on the National Science Board, at the White House, APLU and the National Science Foundation will be incredible assets to our cross-campus strategies in research and innovation. We are delighted to welcome Kelvin to the Illinois research community.”

Droegemeier will be working closely with the Center for AI Innovation (CAII) at NCSA. The CAII team is eager to start collaborating with him and is already thinking of ways Droegemeier’s knowledge will contribute to NCSA. “One of the most exciting advances in atmospheric science research in recent years is the application of AI-based methods,” said Volodymyr Kindratenko, director of CAII. “I am delighted to collaborate with Dr. Droegemeier on this cutting-edge field. Dr. Droegemeier has a wealth of research expertise that will be invaluable for setting new goals and new initiatives at the intersection of atmospheric science research and emerging AI-based approaches. We look forward to exploring these new possibilities with him.”

For his part, Droegemeier is happy to once again collaborate with NCSA. “NCSA has a long history of innovation and national leadership in high-performance computing, data and visualization, and has expanded its role to encompass many more areas in the past decade or more,” said Droegemeier. “I’m excited to work with NCSA on major initiatives in climate, sustainability, risk and predictability.  My discussions with NCSA to date have been extremely exciting, and I hope my work not only benefits from NCSA, but brings new benefits to NCSA.”

You can read more about Kelvin Droegemeier here: Welcome to Atmospheric Sciences: Kelvin Droegemeier & Meet Atmospheric Sciences New Professor: Kelvin Droegemeier

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