This interview with the University of Nottingham’s Louise Brown is part of my series of interviews on the new cohort of EPSRC Research Software Engineering Fellows.
Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a Research Software Engineer?
I’ve had a peculiar career path. I’ve worked as a software engineer for 25 years. I did my PhD in Mechanical Engineering and then moved to a CS department where I worked for a company whilst based in the Drawing Recognition Research Group. I was working on CAD systems for industrial embroidery machines implementing algorithms for automatically converting image data into embroidery machine input data. I worked there for four years until my daughter was born after which I returned part time.
My daughter was ill when she was small and when my son was born 2 years later, I stopped work completely for 2 years. I then worked part time from home for 13 years, firstly on ‘Easy Cross’ software for design of home needlecrafts. I designed and developed add-on modules for different crafts including bobbin lace making, patchwork and knitwear design. My second job during that time was working on a system for automatic reading of travel documents such as passports and air tickets.
I moved to my current post six years ago which advertised for an open-source software co-ordinator. The job entails running the TexGen project, working as a software engineer but with a Research Fellow job title. After a while I started to become aware of the issues surrounding being employed as a researcher but spending most of the time programming. For me the main issue was the lack of career progression, being employed at the top of the Research Fellow scale but with little chance of promotion because there was limited chance of fulfilling the criteria for Senior Research Fellow. (The fellowship fixed this!).
To try and address this I started doing some teaching (MATLAB course for postgrads and first year undergrad drawing and design tutorials). I also joined committees to attempt to broaden my work profile. I am a co-author on a few papers but not enough for academic promotion, although there is more effort being made now to include me when a specific piece of development has been carried out which enables the work described in the paper. I applied for a promotion last year but was turned down, mainly due to lack of publications but also due to my not having done any PhD supervision..
One problem was that my performance reviewer did not know what to suggest in order to move my career forward. One possibility which I was encouraged to look at was fellowships but, having returned to academia relatively recently, I came into the category of ‘Early Career’ fellowships. These normally specify a time limit since completion of a PhD and the 25 years since I completed made these unsuitable. This fellowship was suitable because despite being labeled ‘Early Career’, it had no such time limits and it didn’t matter that I don’t fit the normal early career pigeon holes.
What do you think is the role of a Research Software Engineer? Is it different from a ‘normal’ researcher?
The fundamental difference is the fact that I do work which underpins research and without which the research wouldn’t happen but isn’t necessarily publishable in its own right. Without the work carried out by the Research Software Engineer the papers wouldn’t get published but they don’t necessarily get the credit. The research gets the publication and the credit!
I often end up spending time doing lots of odds and ends that are significant in that they support researchers and facilitate research but aren’t really quantifiable in the sense of a research output.
The outputs of a RSE are different to a ‘normal’ researcher. For example, in performance review, the work done on outputting software isn’t one of the KPIs. I don’t fit the normal ‘money-in, papers-out’ model of many academics.
You’ve recently won an EPSRC RSE Fellowship – congratulations! Can you give a brief overview of your project?
The project is centred around TexGen software. This is open source software for generating 3D geometric models of textiles and textile composites The initial part of the project will be to develop a new major version of the software aimed at addressing the modelling requirements of the increasingly complex textiles and preforms used in composite materials. The project will identify new and emerging areas in textile technology and develop tools to meet the analysis needs of these new technologies and materials.
The Faculty have committed to fund a PhD student and a project has been proposed to research optimisation of 3D woven preforms with various cross-sectional shapes.
Also included in the proposal are elements surrounding programming education and outreach. I currently teach a MATLAB course for postgraduate students which is intended to be a conversion from other languages. The reality is that many of the students haven’t programmed before so the course could be split to better meet the needs of the varying requirements of the students.
How long did it take you to write your Fellowship application?
It was horrendous! It was really hard work. The Business development team in the Faculty were really helpful, giving very useful advice on how to write a proposal. It consumed all of my time for the weeks between acceptance of the intent to submit and the submission date.
One thing that really helped was that two weeks before the submission date, the Graduate School held a ‘Writing retreat’ – 3 days for research staff to ‘just write’. There was space set aside, refreshments, speakers/courses if you wanted them and one-to-one appointments available with a careers advisor and EndNote specialist. The research development team people came down for a couple of meetings but there was a no phones rule and we were encouraged to turn our email off.
Having academics who were willing to spend time reading (and rereading!) the proposal was really important, especially as it was the first proposal that I’d written. The first draft was shredded by one of them but in a way that was very positive.
Who are your project partners?
I don’t have any named on the proposal. For the last couple of years I have been a platform fellow for EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Composites (CIMComp) which has a large number of project partners, funding research projects underpinned by TexGen. It is anticipated that this collaboration will continue. Part of the aim of the project is also to seek out new project partners, particularly for areas of textile research other than composites.
Tell me about your RSE group.
We don’t have one at Nottingham! It’s just me. There are plans to identify other RSEs in the faculty to start building a community. Watch this space.
Which programming languages and technologies do you regularly use?
TexGen is written in C++ and has Python wrappers. A bit of MATLAB for teaching. OS – Windows. I work in Visual Studio and am comfortable in it.
I tend to work on a ‘need to know’ basis, looking for new technologies when there’s a specific need. When you are the only person in a project, you don’t have the luxury of learning lots of technologies.
Are there any languages/technologies that you used to use a lot but have now moved away from? Why?
I used to use C but rarely use it anymore. I also did assembler many years ago. When I was an undergrad, I did a software engineering course that used PDP-11 assembler. It was the first time that the lecturer had taught the course and was incomprehensible! I got the textbooks out of the library and worked my way through them, discovering how much I enjoyed assembler programming in the process. On the back of that the lecturer invited me to do a PhD where I designed and built a filament winding machine. The control system was run from a PC using 286 assembler.
Is there anything on your ‘to-learn’ list?
Getting better at the Linux side of things. I can get by but I am aware that there is much that I don’t know and could learn much better from someone who’s expert at using it rather than hunting around myself to work out how to do things. There are people who run TexGen on the HPC system so I would like to be able to support them better.
I’m looking forward to becoming part of the RSE community and learning from the other members.