Peg Williams embraced mathematics at a time when STEM was a term not yet coined to encourage women’s interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This was not unusual at Ursinus, where our own pioneers – Blanche Schultz ’41 among them – were leading the way. Ursinus’s history is intertwined with innovation. The basement of Williams’ main classroom building, Pfahler Hall, is where computer pioneer John Mauchly, who was on the physics faculty, experimented with key components of one of the earliest computers.
But Williams has always been a leader, and will co-lead the Keep the Promise campaign, which will set the course for Ursinus’s future.
Those who knew the senior mathematics major who quoted Einstein (a humorous quote) in the 1980 Ruby will not be surprised she is senior vice president of research and development at Cray, which designs and develops industry-leading supercomputers. At Cray she is responsible for a budget of $100 million and a team of 350 hardware and software engineers.
Her Ursinus education taught her to “critically look at problems/issues and figure out alternatives for resolving them” she says. The professors challenged the students to do that, “and it has proved to be very beneficial,” she adds.
“I have always been interested in education,” she says. “At various points in my career I considered teaching. My original plan was to teach high school math and physics. I took all the required teacher education classes (including student teaching) while I was at Ursinus. While in graduate school, I taught calculus work sessions. I also considered teaching at the college level when I got my Ph. D. However I followed the sirens’ call of computing both times.”
Her field, more precisely, is high performance computing (HPC). The work “enables us to do things like “better predict the path of hurricanes, design artificial hips, knees, etc., and simulate the health of the nation’s nuclear stockpile.”
She is a strong role model. “There are a number of women in HPC but it is clearly a male-dominated field. It is encouraging to show younger women that there are exciting fields in science and technology that are open to them.”
She is delighted to be working in a field that can change the world, and in a company that builds the computational tools to do this. “This is what motivates me,” she says. “In my job, I manage a team of about 500 engineers. We build supercomputers: power and cooling for high density cabinets and blades, build and/or enable high performance networks, and the software that enables a customer to harness the power of hundreds (or thousands) of processors in single application.”
Because all of the scientific advancements in high performance computing have been the result of interdisciplinary collaboration, Williams is particularly excited about the coming Innovation and Discovery Center, a space that connect Pfahler and Thomas halls and that will foster interdisciplinary collaborations. Ursinus students she points out, will begin interdisciplinary work early in their academic careers.
Williams continued her education at Lehigh University earning a master’s of science degree in mathematics in 1985 and her Ph. D. in applied mathematics in 1987. During her time as a doctoral student she received a fellowship from the US Dept. of Energy to study at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She first worked for IBM as a programmer and moved to Numerical Algorithms Group where she worked as associate director for user services and applications at the Maui High Performance Computing Center. She then returned to IBM, rising to the role of vice president of AIX and HPC software.
She wanted to give back in some way. “Considering my love of education and my appreciation of the great college education I received at Ursinus, I thought I would enjoy giving back to Ursinus as a Trustee and, after meeting with Brock Blomberg, thought I might be able to help the college accomplish some of the new initiatives. I am passionate about interdisciplinary education so helping the IDC become a reality is a good fit for me.
Not only does Peg Williams continue the Ursinus legacy of pioneering work in the computing field, but considering car professional achievements, and her interest in student work in the Innovation and Discovery Center, will take it way into the future.