Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

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Being Innovative: Carl Gable

A monthly profile series featuring a Lab employee who exemplifies one of 9 traits identified in the Laboratory’s Purpose Statement
Carl Gable

Carl Gable

Chancing the unknown, discovering a vision

It takes a certain caliber of scientist to spend three years designing an extensive computational suite, combine all the pieces and see it work, then throw away the code and rewrite it to run quicker, smarter and more efficiently. This vision and commitment to excellence characterizes the work of Carl Gable, group leader for Earth and Environmental Sciences Division’s Computational Earth Science (EES-16).

“I’ve been coming to the Lab for a long time,” Carl says, laughing. While an undergrad at the University of California-Berkeley in 1982, a letter posted on his advisor’s door caught his attention: a call for students to assist with the developing Yucca Mountain project at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Although originally from California, Carl’s family moved 10 times before he graduated from high school. To him, loading up his 1968 Volkswagen Bug and driving across three desert states to take a sight-unseen summer job was no problem. From that point on, he was in.

Carl’s education was in geophysics but being naturally adept with numbers, he undertook computational geometry and applied mathematics for Yucca Mountain. That field would eventually become the focus of his career. Inspired by Lab research, Carl would write and present a peer-reviewed journal article on radiative thermal conductivity as an undergraduate, then finish his master’s in applied physics and his doctorate in geophysics at Harvard via the Lab. Carl always saw himself as a scientist, but the marketability and bottom line of industry never attracted him as a career. “For my attitude and aptitude, I fit here,” he says, describing how the Lab encourages long-term vision and innovation, inspiring the pursuit of big things.

Stronger together — dividing problems for faster, parallel solutions

Carl’s vision for large-scale projects prompted the 2011 inception of dfnWorks, a parallelized (designed to run via multiple computers to increase speed) computational software suite that models discrete fracture networks — mathematical representations of subsurface fractures — used to identify hydrological characteristics. Such a program has applications in natural gas production, hydraulic fracturing, carbon sequestration and contaminant removal, to name a few.

Carl Gable

The computational software suite dfnWorks positions the Lab to address potential new projects that will use this alternative approach to modeling flow and transport in fractured subsurface environments.

The dfnWorks inspiration came when Carl and his team recognized that, just like parallel computing, a macro-scale solution could be divided into many small, incremental solutions (in this case, software programs) functioning simultaneously.

“Experience gave us the vision,” Carl says, “but creative thought said, if we put all these pieces together they will fit.”

Although none of the EES-16 scientists could create the computational suite single-handedly, each one contributed specialized knowledge. Students, postdoctoral researchers and staff all worked on dfnWorks’ many subprograms (dfnGen, LaGriT, PFLOTRAN, dfnTrans) throughout different stages. Carl specifically contributed his experience with mesh generation, the digital creation of intersecting polygonal meshes that render a computerized version of subsurface fracture systems.

Anyone can access dfnWorks; it’s open-source software. Carl says his team was never secretive about the source codes. Seeing the suite in action was more important than beating others to answers. “Just be good at what you do,” he says. “It lifts everybody up.”

Carl Gable

With much collaboration, three years later, Carl's team released the high-powered, open-source software suite.

Igniting an end-goal mentality

Back in the late 1990s, Carl participated in a fire walking exercise facilitated by a friend. A bed of glowing red coals radiated dense heat, reaching scorching tendrils outward to Carl’s bare feet. After building a roaring fire and reducing it to embers, the facilitator articulated different methods of crossing, but Carl knew what he needed to do — envision himself at the finish line before ever taking the first step.

Focused, and with knowledge of the physics behind the phenomenon, Carl crossed the fiery path. His confidence came from preparation, but his motivation came from envisioning success.

To lead a team through time-consuming and complex incremental steps, Carl keeps a vision of the end-goal in his head. That vision was tested in a difficult decision made three years ago: Carl and his team decided to throw away the majority of the dfnWorks suite, and rebuild the program. Seeing that it worked inspired them to improve, drawing from their gained experience. “We knew what the finish line looked like,” he says.

Carl Gable

Carl finished the “Yak Attack” mountain bike stage race in Nepal, the highest bike race in the world.

Carl handed the reins to staff scientists and postdocs for the rewrite, and credits EES scientists Jeffrey Hyman and Nataliia Makedonska for bringing the program to fruition. In 2017, the redesigned dfnWorks would win a prestigious R&D 100 award.

Breaking trail — both in the office and out

In his commitment to his team for 30-plus years, Carl considers himself a “best supporting actor,” content to develop a team that envisions and pursues big projects rather than seek the limelight himself.

EES-16 Deputy Group Leader Richard Middleton describes Carl as devoted to both management and technical contributions. “His passion for management assures that the Computational Earth Science group is a dynamic and productive environment; for example, CES is the smallest group in EES and has one of the highest rates of first-author publications,” Middleton says. “In addition to management, Carl supports multiple EES-16 projects through critical technical work and technical leadership. He is at the center of everything EES-16 does.”

Carl Gable

Carl’s passion and ability to accomplish great things through consistent, small steps echo in his activities outside the Lab. He has completed 10-day multisport events where teams traversed 500 kilometers through a combination of horseback riding, canyoneering, whitewater rafting, biking and trekking. Athletes raced non-stop, day and night, with only an altimeter, compass and map.

Orchestrating a concert of specialized science

In all Carl’s adventure races, he has always been the team navigator. And as group leader, Carl’s approach remains hands-on. “Carl goes out of his way to ensure that our lives are not impacted too heavily by larger bureaucratic issues,” EES-16 Team Leader Phil Stauffer says.

Carl plays a key part in multiple ongoing projects including repository science, carbon sequestration, nonproliferation, unconventional shale gas, climate impacts and hydrology. Developing dfnWorks, however, has been his favorite project to date. “DfnWorks has been very fulfilling,” Carl says. “It pushes the boundaries into our own narrow niche.”

The inclusivity and innovative vision that Carl Gable gives to EES-16 helps others excel within their niches, and brings together a concert of talent to make lasting contributions.

Carl Gable

Carl regularly travels to inland British Columbia for backcountry ski touring, cat-skiing and heli-skiing; completed 24-hour ski-touring races and 100-mile trail running races; participated in multi-sport racing in New Zealand and Brazil.