UMIACS Director of Computing Facilities Shares Vast ‘Simpsons’ Collection, Makerspace Creations
Photos by John T. Consoli
Homer Simpson looks a little confused on his way to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant–or at least the 5-inch-tall version of him does, lined up with coworkers Lenny and Carl and a few hundred neighbors above old-school keyboards and top-of-the-line graphics cards in Derek Yarnell’s office.
“They’re disarming,” said Yarnell ’01, director of computing facilities for University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies (UMIACS). “When people come in hot to Derek, upset about something, they can’t get THAT upset” once they see the funny figurines.
The Simpsons characters aren’t the only items Yarnell collects. He shares the surprisingly high value of the computer parts stacked in his office in the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering, the disarming nature of his array of toys and his favorite makerspace creations.
Yarnell’s 36-box DIY privacy wall—worth about $75,000 in GPUs—contains just a tiny portion of the packaging for 1,500 units he oversees at the UMIACS data center in the A.V. Williams Building, as well as at workstations in graduate labs.
“They were first designed as gaming devices, but now we can do a lot of interesting scientific computing,” he said. As an undergrad, Yarnell couldn’t have dreamed of one day overseeing such a vast computational infrastructure.
“Graduating when I did, I hit the iron hot. I was in the right place at the right time,” said Yarnell. Today, UMIACS’ computers play host to a variety of high-performance computing applications, especially machine learning research. He supports the work of about 80 researchers across campus in areas as varied as computational linguistics, robotics and human-computer interaction.
Springfield in College Park
Whether you’re a fan of the rebellious Bart or meek Milhouse, you’ll find almost every Simpsons character in Yarnell’s office. He has about 95% percent of all the figurines issued in the series, including dioramas.
“When I started collecting these in the early aughts, I didn’t have a family yet, and had a little more disposable income,” he said. “But then I got enough of them and my wife told me we didn’t have space for them, so they’ve been in my office since then.”
His favorite is the irascible Groundskeeper Willie. “He’s long-running, but not the main character”—much like his own role at UMIACS.
From pie bowls to Testudo shells to team spirit medallions, Yarnell has fabricated all types of projects at the Singh Family Makerspace Sandbox, which he also oversees on the first floor of the Iribe Center.
“When I was a kid, you were limited to wood shop or metal shop. The types of tools and resources students have access to in their K-12 education and when you come to a university like this is really crazy and amazing,” he said. The Sandbox includes wood and metal studios, but also a photography and videography studio, a sewing studio and more. “Being hands-on, it gives you real-life lessons on how to persevere, how to design things, how to be creative.”
Natural family connections
Yarnell said he’s the black sheep of his family for choosing a career in computer science, rather than following his grandparents, parents and sister into chemistry—his grandparents even worked on the Manhattan Project. But they were always supportive of him, he said, and he maintains his connection with his family through frequent trips to a cabin his grandfather bought in the Adirondacks, as well as the fake bonsai tree his grandfather once kept in his office.
“There’s no road [to the cabin], but there’s internet now. So it was a great place for the pandemic,” said Yarnell, who spent many weeks there working remotely.
Zergling from Starcraft
The little purple plushie represents one of the creatures in Yarnell’s favorite computer game. “What does Derek love? Starcraft,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like chess. It’s about problem solving, and you want to compete against humans because computers still can’t post enough of a challenge in their decision-making—yet.”
This is part of an occasional series offering a look inside some of the most interesting faculty and staff offices around campus. Think you have a cool workspace—or know someone’s that you’d like to recommend? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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