Professor Melissa Terras

Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage, and Director of Research, Edinburgh Futures Institute

Can you tell us about your journey to your current role?

I studied Art History and English Literature in the 1990s. I was doing my MA dissertation in 1996 and we had the chance to hand it in as a website! The internet was taking off then and I had a flatmate who was a physicist and it was clear to me the internet was going to be the next big thing. I learnt how to programme. I handed in my thesis and did very well. At the time, the Scottish Government were paying for people to do conversion Masters courses in Computer Science. I took this on – It seemed like a no brainer especially it was all paid for and had better job prospects than Art History. So I did another masters in Computer Science and got a distinction in software and systems. I then went to Oxford and did a doctorate in engineering, using image processing and artificial intelligence to help read Ancient documents. I’ve been in this area ever since, using digital tools and techniques for, or more specifically between, both the humanities and computer science.

It was never my plan to be an academic, as my field now didn’t exist when I was starting out. But I went to UCL and began a full-time academic position in Information Science and digital libraries after my PhD, teaching internet technologies and digitisation to librarians, archivists, and publishers. I was there for 15 years and progressed to full Professor, and Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. This reported equally to both the Faculty Engineering and the Faculty of Arts, encouraging interdisciplinary research, and the use of computational solutions to humanities and cultural heritage problems and questions.

I’ve now been at the University of Edinburgh for two years and direct research for the new Edinburgh Future’s Institute. I’m the Research Director for Creative Informatics and the Director for the new Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society.


Amazing, not much then!

Absolutely, and half my time is still spent on research projects – at the moment, I’m looking at how we can mine data from historical newspapers, another one is on handwriting recognition technology and how we can use machine learning to read manuscripts, and another is on metadata in museums – you know, when you walk around museums and your phone can tell where you are and offer information on what’ in front of you. I am also working on Digital Library Futures, which is about changes in copyright and how that relates to libraries collecting digital rather than print content. The law changed in 2013 and we are making recommendations to legislation because it isn’t working for the library sector and users. As academics, we have the freedom to say things that librarians don’t.


Do you supervise?

I just had four PhDs finish this year! I’m just about to start a new student in October. Over the past 15 years, I have supervised 20 students to full completion. I’m so immensely proud of them. It’s my favourite bit of the job, I love getting to know people and their projects.


What does a typical day look like for you?

There isn’t a typical day! I manage a lot of initiatives and I don’t have much time to code anymore, but that’s ok. We have 5 postdoctoral research assistants in Creative Informatics, so I may have meetings with them and the project team, or with my other colleagues in the EFI, or the library, or Information Services about the service and the training programme we’re doing, with our research technologists who help people with research projects. If I’m lucky, I’ll have an hour for emails and an hour to think about my own research! I try and have one day a week with no meetings and two days a month to write.  It’s very hard to find the time when you’re directing projects, as you’re always in meetings. But one of the reasons I moved here is because of the Edinburgh Futures Institute and the City Region Deal. I’m really excited about it.


What specifically are you looking forward to at the moment?

In Creative Informatics, we have £10 million investment for data science and the creative industries in Edinburgh – this takes up about a third of my time. We are working with the National Library of Scotland and the Fringe Festival and the National Museums of Scotland, as well as many other industry partners. I’m most looking forward to building up a network, a cohort, to do creative things with data and tech. We have a lot of resource to do that. The training programme in terms of upskilling people will be amazing. We have a dream but it’s a very creative, agile and reflective project. It also bridges people who don’t normally get involved with data science, such as the creative industries.


Can you talk about the data sets you’re working with?

I’m working with multi-spectral imaging, which allows us to see text on documents that are damaged or too old for the human eye to be able to read. We’re working to make that more efficient because it is very expensive and need to be digitised so that more libraries can use it, and to speed up the processing of images that come from it. That is very exciting because it’s taking an inefficient process and streamlining it. 

We also have a Lidar scanner, which is for mass 3D capturing, which is used a lot for architecture and things like oil rigs – to 3D scan whole structures. We’re playing with it as an artistic medium and working with students from the Edinburgh College of Art. We’re hoping to scan one of the major architectural sites in Edinburgh and hoping to show hidden Edinburgh through the artwork that may be produced!

I’m also really interested in libraries and the mass data sets they provide, and how we can mine and analyse these. Data is everything!


Who and what helps you to achieve your targets?

Shout out to my lovely husband! Having that support at home means that I can have a normal life. We have an equal household that allows me have my amazing career as well as my family.

I enjoy working immensely with librarians and a lot of my intellectual discussions happen with the Centre for Research Collections and Edinburgh University Library. I’m also a trustee of the National Library of Scotland and on the British Library Labs board. I get a lot of energy from that crew. They do immense things, often on a shoestring.

I hugely enjoy the interdisciplinary of my role, getting to work with incredible experts on a daily basis. It’s so important that different departments get to hang out together! I usually work with pure computer scientists or pure librarians but in the middle, that’s where it all happens. You can put things together and have to be able to communicate.


Would you recommend your role to women and girls?

It’s a great and intellectually stimulating job. If you want to have a family in academia, it’s entirely do-able, but you need a supportive partner and colleagues. The bar, however, is set higher for you as a woman in the workplace. There is an endemic and systematic layer of sexism that still exists in academia. You have to figure out how to cope – get yourself a mentor and find the male colleagues who you trust when things flare up. It’s all stuff you can learn to deal with and don’t ever let it stop you. I have some horrific stories – but I don’t let it stop me.

All academic jobs are impossible. All of them. It is an impossible portfolio. You’ll need to prioritise, streamline and let things fall on the floor. It’s about managing the stress and the impossible, conflicting deadlines. Nobody is absolutely brilliant at knowledge exchange, research, supervision, all of it. Academia is a very interesting and fertile work space, but it’s often about managing the juggle.


What do we need to change?

We have to start young and get the messaging right and need to treat girls better to improve the research pipeline. It’s not necessarily the tech industry’s ‘fault’ that they have so few women applicants, it starts much earlier before that. I’m so excited and hopeful for the future and the generation coming up now, they have powerful attitudes that are very different to those in positions of power now, in their 50s and 60s, and it will change everything for the better.

It’s quite shocking – you see it when you have your own kids – the ways girls are spoken to, the ‘pinkification’ of society. How we are bringing up children is shaping gender difference in industry, we need to reframe it. Universities are not the cause but are part of the solution and I’m pleased about the honest discussions that are happening.


Who is your hero or heroine?

Lisa Jardine, a British historian. She died a couple of years ago but had a great attitude to being a woman in academia, and I was honoured to get to know her.


What is your biggest achievement in your career?

My biggest achievement is my Oxford doctorate in engineering, which was hard work! Recently, I wrote a non-digital book about Children’s Literature, published by Cambridge University Press. That was the result of me going off and doing 4 years of independent study and using a very different part of my brain. Less selfishly, watching my students grow and change and achieve is very rewarding. And as well as this, I’ve contributed in my own small way to the field of Digital Humanities, which is now an established area, which has developed over the past twenty years.


Is there anything you wish you could do more of?

Writing. I need to write more books!  

Image of Professor Melissa Terras
Picture by Lesley Martin interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

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