Kim Budil in her office

Leading the Lab

by | Feb 7, 2022 | Alumni Achievers, Fall/Winter 2021-22, Technology

When Kim Budil, Ph.D. ’94, first joined the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a graduate student in 1987, she never anticipated that she would become its first female director 34 years later. She began her new role on March 2.

“Being named director is wonderful, exciting, humbling and a little bit surreal,” Budil said. “I think it’s a great sign of the times that I rose up through the ranks here, spent my whole career affiliated in one way or another with the laboratory, and was able to rise to this position to lead this place.”

As the 13th director of the laboratory, Budil oversees the work of approximately 8,765 employees and manages an annual budget of approximately $2.7 billion. Established at the height of the Cold War, it is a national security lab with a nuclear core. “We were founded with a core set of responsibilities to take care of part of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile through the application of science, technology and engineering,” Budil said. A part of its mission is to ensure that the stockpile remains safe, secure and effective in support of national security. The lab also handles a spectrum of national security missions — from biosecurity, space operations and energy resource development to counterterrorism.

Initially, Budil discovered LLNL through a UC Davis summer institute program. The university and LLNL have a long history of collaboration in research and educational programs, fostering significant job opportunities for UC Davis graduates.

Budil received her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1987, obtained her Ph.D. in engineering/applied science from UC Davis in 1994, and became a postdoc in the lab’s weapons program in the same year.

“I got to work in laboratories and on apparatus that the average university lab could never dream of having. This partnership was such a unique opportunity to learn and to have access to this world-class research facility. It’s really why I stayed.”

Throughout her time at the lab, Budil has contributed to or overseen many areas of research as a physicist, including experimental physics, computational physics, materials science, high energy density physics, nuclear science and emergency response for nuclear emergencies. “I was able to grow, learn and work in support of missions that really matter. It allowed me to be a part of something that was bigger than just me,” Budil said. 

As director, she oversees the technical and operational work of the lab, builds relationships with government officials and serves as the lab’s liaison with the United States Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Lawrence Livermore National Security Board of Governors, the University of California and other government, public and private organizations. Uniquely, alongside the directors of Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories through the secretaries of energy and defense, Budil also provides the U.S. president with an annual technical assessment of the state of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

Additionally, among her goals as director is advocacy for other members of underrepresented communities in science in the research space. “Diversity is essential to excellence,” she said. “Being different is not a handicap; it’s a superpower.”

In fact, Budil said her favorite part of the job is building and appreciating a community of dedicated researchers. As she takes daily walks around the Livermore, California, work site and meets those in her workforce, she has great appreciation for everyone contributing to the lab’s missions and projects.

“It’s a dream come true to come to work every day and preside over the world’s most incredible array of science and technology and the most dedicated and excellent workforce I’ve ever experienced,” Budil said.