University of Texas at Austin


Loving What You Do - Profile Bill Press

By Rebecca Riley

Published June 23, 2024

William H. Press

From advising presidents to advancing research, Bill Press has played a significant role in shaping 21st century science, science policy, and scientific discourse. 

At The University of Texas at Austin, Press holds the Leslie Surginer Professorship of Computer Science and Integrative Biology, and conducts research as a Core Faculty Member at the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences

His wide-ranging interests across the physical and biological sciences dovetail with his tenure on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under both Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

“Those meetings at the beginning of the Obama administration started off very formal,” Press recalled. “We would rehearse in advance and then make short presentations to the President, and he would call us Dr. Press or 'Dr. This or Dr. That.'” Two terms in office would melt those formalities away. 

“Fast forward seven years and the meetings had moved from the State Dining Room in the White House to a little conference room right next to the Oval Office. It's the one you see all the time on TV — It's the Roosevelt Room,” he said. “We would all crowd in, and Obama would come from across the hall and have substantive discussions with us about things that were on his mind or that we thought he should know about.”

The Biden Administration has continued to build on this foundation, increasing the size of the Council to enhance diversity and industry representation. 

“We’re too big now to fit in the Roosevelt room,” Press laughingly admitted. “But it's very similar in that the President has things on his mind and wants to hear what we think, and then we have things that we think he should know about, and in a very respectful way, of course, we present them to him.”

Part of the challenge of teaching is to teach in a way that's rewarding to the top, middle, and bottom of the class...That transfers to trying to give advice to staffers on Capitol Hill or in the White House, or politicians, or even the President himself.

— Bill Press

A valuable lesson in science communication came early in Bill’s career from his thesis advisor, Nobel laureate Kip Thorne. “Kip truly believed that if you discover something, you haven't really discovered it until you're able to communicate it,” Press shared. This philosophy underscores his belief in the importance of clear and effective communication in all his roles. “Communication is absolutely a part of everything I do from teaching to research to advising the government.”

For Press, the hats of a professor and a presidential advisor are both cut from the cloth of communication. In this line of work, he got his start as a Harvard undergrad working at the college radio station. 

“Part of the challenge of teaching is to teach in a way that's rewarding to the top, middle, and bottom of the class. You learn communication skills that way,” he explained. “That transfers to trying to give advice to staffers on Capitol Hill or in the White House, or politicians, or even the President himself.”

Transferability is certainly a hallmark of Press’s career. 

Though he now works at the interface of computer science and computational biology, he was for more than two decades professor of astronomy and of physics at Harvard University. His career took a turn toward the biological after serving as deputy director of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“I didn't really have time to do any of my own research there,” Press said. “But it was a job where I got to hear a lot about other people's research and help them get financial support within the lab.” This role enriched his understanding of biology and genomics. “In the course of our tripling the size of biosciences at the Lab, I helped recruit a significant number of new scientists, and I went to all their job talks and seminars.” 

When Press began to consider a pivot back into university life, he realized that he now knew more about what was right then interesting in genomics than for astrophysics. 

In transitioning to a new field, Press brought unique skills and knowledge from his old one. “When you switch fields, you bring with you a kind of a dowry. There are things you know how to do from your old field that are not so well known in your new field. This is especially true for computational work,” he noted. 

His move to UT was influenced by its welcoming environment and the opportunity to collaborate with biologists, applying his skills  in scientific computing. “A big part of my coming here to UT was that I knew several of the biologists here, and they were very welcoming of me being a kind of old graduate student in their labs for my first few years here. The Oden Institute, then called ICES, was a great place to come because of its very cross-disciplinary view of scientific computing.”

In his free time, Bill loves to work. “I work with computers at work. And if you asked me, ‘Do you have a hobby?’ I'd say, yeah, playing with computers at home — not on the subject of my research, but just on other things that catch my interest. I guess I'm the classic nerd in that respect,” he quipped. 

This hobby has led to some significant scientific projects. One notable example is a paper on game theory co-authored with Freeman Dyson, which started as a just-for-fun project during Christmas vacation and turned into an important new theoretical advance in the field. 

This researcher’s journey from part time college radio host to professor and presidential advisor underscores the power of loving what you do, whatever it may be. Bill Press’s commitment to clear communication and interdisciplinary problem solving is key to his work — whether in the classroom or the Roosevelt Room.