October 11, 2019
Staff Accomplishment

Of Finite Elements and Football

Applying mathematics to a variety of scientific problems earns PCSD postdoc Francesca Grogan appreciation from mentors

Francesca Grogan

Francesca Grogan

Francesca Grogan

Francesca Grogan grew up in Southern California, gravitated to competitive swimming, and chose to stay close to her geographical roots for her undergraduate and postgraduate studies. She is an unabashed fan of sunshine and warm temperatures.

So, it was only natural that when choosing her favorite football team that she would pick… the Green Bay Packers and the Frozen Tundra?

“I know,” says Grogan, whose mathematics-oriented curriculum vitae is the very model of logic and rationality. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Grogan says that she found the team’s success and tradition to be appealing, such as The Lambeau Leap, in which a touchdown-scoring Packer jumps onto a nearby end zone railing for hugs, backslaps, and general adulation.

It was an even bigger leap for Grogan to choose PNNL for her postdoctoral studies in mathematics.

She had never heard of PNNL during her undergraduate work at the University of California-Los Angeles in applied mathematics, with a specialization in computing, or during her graduate studies at the University of California-San Diego where she earned a PhD in mathematics in June 2017.

About a year before receiving her doctorate, Grogan became intrigued with the idea of working at a national laboratory, targeting her search at Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where she was hired in summer 2016 as a high energy density physics student intern.

“That’s where I got the crash course in what the lab is like,” Grogan says, “and what it can be like for mathematicians.”

Grogan later interviewed for an opening at PNNL and began work here in August 2017. She has distinguished herself, in part, because of the varied projects on which she has contributed.

“My main interest would be finite-element methods,” she says. “I’ve worked on one finite-element project here – modeling quantum devices and doing semiconductor modeling using finite elements.”

That work, along with several other projects, has earned praise from colleagues.

“Francesca Grogan is an exceptional computational scientist and investigator,” says William Rosenthal, principal investigator for a Chemical Dynamics Initiative project, of which Grogan is a team member. “She goes out of her way to find and fill gaps in capability, whether it be developing finite-element models for quantum-scale devices, creating data analytics to study variability in additively manufactured materials, or building correlative models of poorly curated pipeline failure data to predict future incidents before they happen.”

Regarding Grogan’s preferred research area, Rosenthal pointed to her work on a project that “involved building a finite-element solver for a complex system of coupled, time-dependent partial-differential equations which describe the electron densities and potential fields in the device.”

“Francesca had the right combination of computational mathematics experience and familiarity with quantum-scale phenomena to develop this new capability.”

Finite Math

Just months after starting at PNNL, in October 2017, finite-element calculations were far from Grogan’s thoughts. She was driving northbound from Chicago en route to Title Town, USA, to the Frozen Tundra, to the empire that Lombardi built, to a stadium named not for an insurance company, or an airline, or a grocery store product, or what have you, but for the team’s founder. She was going to a town with a metro-area population not much bigger than the Tri-Cities, Washington.

She was going to see her beloved Packers at Lambeau Field.

The good news: Packers legendary Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr was in attendance and waved to the crowd.

The bad news: Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers had broken his collarbone and would not play.

The good news: A fellow UCLA alum, Brett Hundley, would start in place of Rodgers.

The bad news: Brett Hundley, who is no Brett Favre, started in place of Rodgers.

“It did not end well,”* Grogan says.

Her experience at the lab clearly has had a different trajectory.


* New Orleans Saints 26, Green Bay Packers 17

Published: October 11, 2019