Photo:

Sarah Mount

Favourite Thing: Finding new, simple ways of doing fun things with computers that used to be really hard.

Me and my work

I’m a Senior Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton. Most of my research work is about finding new ways to make it easy to program computers.

 

Computer Science is still a very new subject, it’s really only fifty or sixty years old. We know a lot more about older subjects like Physics, and that knowledge gets filtered down to help solve all sorts of real-life problems like building bridges and vacuum cleaners. Because Computer Science is so new, we don’t (yet!) have reliable ways of writing software and it turns out that software is much more complicated to create than most physical things that we can build. That’s why the software that you use at School every day doesn’t always work and you still sometimes see the Blue Screen of Death.

So, ever since the very first programs were written, back in the 1940s Computer Scientists have tried to find ways to make programming easier and less error prone. Sometimes that means using Maths to create a “model” of the software, just like Physicists use Maths to understand the way the planets move around the Sun. Sometimes it means finding new practical ways of organising your ideas in software. 

Most of my work involves two sorts of software: firstly programs were very many computers are connected together. The only system we have like that that works is the Internet, and one reason the Internet works is that so many companies and engineers are involved in fixing it when it goes wrong! In the future, it is likely that thousands of small computers will be embedded in everyday objects like clothing and around your homes. With so many small computers it won’t be possible to have an engineer come and fix them when they go wrong, so it’s important that they can all work together without humans getting involved. No one quite knows how to do that yet. 

The second sort of systems I’m interested in are ones which can sense and react to the environment. These might be used for very serious applications, like gathering data to help us understand climate change, or they might be used for more fun things, like creating new works of art. The two pictures below show a couple of simple examples, the first one is some kit we use when we work with soil scientists. It’s a basic prototype so it’s very big by our standards, but the main computer is about the size of a stick of gum. The second picture shows some work we did with some artists for the Darwin Bicentenary year. In the middle is an animation of an ecosystem that my colleague Eugene Ch’ng wrote and kids can change the environment the animated creatures live in by making the sun shine (with a lamp), making it rain (by pouring water in), poisoning the soil (pouring vinegar in) or causing an earthquake (with a toy hammer!).

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My Typical Day

One of the best things about my job is that there’s no such thing as a typical day.

Like most University Lecturers my work generally falls into three areas: doing research to contribute new knowledge in the area we working; teaching our students who will become the next generation of Computer Scientists and telling the wider world about our work. There’s no set pattern to my days, but to give you an idea of the sort of things I do in a typical week, this is what I did last week:

  • wrote a paper for an academic conference to tell colleagues about the work we are doing. That work was all about being able to store scientific data on the web so that scientists, artists and anyone else can use it easily. One of our students is working with us for his “placement year” and he did a lot off the work for the paper.
  • Met up with a colleague from Slovenia who came over to visit us and talk about joint work. She is currently working on an “intelligent fridge” which will give you access to recipes over the Internet and order food for you.
  • Spent some time planning for a trip to the Gadget Show where we’re going to demonstrate some of our work and hopefully encourage more people to start creating gadgets and programs of their own.
  • Taught my students how to write a web server – that’s the program that sends web pages to your web browser. Helped our second and third year students with their group projects and final year projects. Most of them are doing very well, but the final year students only have a few weeks left to finish their project which is worth a large part of their final mark.

What I'd do with the money

Probably visit some local schools with a joint project with our art department

One of the things I’m really keen to do is help people understand that computers aren’t just tools to use but have some very deep and interesting science going on inside them. If I won the money I’d probably try to use it to visit some local schools and try to talk to them about that. Rather than going alone, I’d probably make it a joint project with our Art department who are really great at finding new ways to present information. 

However, which areas of Computer Science we could focus on and how we go about it I have no idea. I’d be really keen if you guys could tell me what you’d like to know about Computer Science.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Geek coffee drinker

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Paul Heaton; he used to sing with the Housemartins and later with the Beautiful South before going solo.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Going on holiday with my boyfriend for our tenth anniversary last year was pretty cool

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

More hours in the day; a lifetime supply of free coffee and for all my programs to work perfectly

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to do the job I have now, so I guess I have my dream job ;)

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Oh yes. I always hated getting up early so I was often late for registration. I had to sit through detention for it once and a few times I got marked down as truanting. These days I have a much, much louder alarm clock!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Lots of things have been fun, but last year I spent a few days in Malawi to help kick off a software project for a charity that’s working out there. That was great fun and the Computer Scientists and their students in Malawi were really good fun to work with

Tell us a joke.

What do you call a dinosaur with one eye? A doyouthinkhesawus