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Professor Muffy Calder

Professor Muffy Calder interviewed by Poppy Gerrard-Abbott

Professor Muffy Calder

Vice Principal & Head of College of Science & Engineering, Glasgow University

I went to university to study Maths and Physics, I didn’t know about computer science and didn’t even like the first computing course I took! I did a module in programming and that was it for me – programming is the best.

Tell us about your current work and your relationship with data?

I’ve only become interested in data quite recently, actually.

I am a computer scientist – I work in the area of modelling and complex computer systems, mostly focused on  sensor based and concurrent systems, these are systems where there are lots of processes happening at the same time and communicating with each other. We don’t always know what a system is going to do when there are multiple, complex processes going on.

The reason we like to model is to answer the question: does your system do what you want it to do, what do you think it’s going to do?

Something I’ve been working on for years is using modelling to understand how users actually use systems. In the past, people have used Mathematics and computational models to reason about the design of a system. Now what I’m interested in is not the design of a system but how people use it because quite often, users use systems in completely different ways that software developers anticipate. I’m involved with a number of software developers who have developed applications that are instrumented so we can capture how a user is interacting with software – selection of menu options and so on. We capture and log the interactions so we have a huge repository of user traces, time-series data of many users over weeks, months, years.

We have hundreds of thousands of these and the question is: how do we use this data in effective ways so that it informs future development and redesign software in ways that allows users to do things more easily. Or perhaps that they’ve worked out how to use the application better than the designers anticipated, or perhaps we want to prevent them doing certain things with the system.  We have developed new models, based on statistical methods, and then we use temporal logics for analysis.  The results of the analysis informs re-design, which may be for different classes of users. Once we’ve redesigned the application, possibly according to different needs – we can deploy the new software, instrument it, and go through the whole cycle again.  In this case, the goal of the analysis would be to evaluate  the success (or otherwise!) of the re-design.

This work is about not designing in abstract ways but using the evidence of how people actually use systems.

Previously, I wasn’t interested in humans very much – more in modelling flow of control in systems. However, this work has provided us with unexpected results. People do things you don’t expect them to and in this case, they are definitely doing things we never expected them to do. It’s worth saying that I wasn’t involved in the initial design of the system so I have very little biases around what to expect.

I deal with small, big data if you like! But it’s still pretty big – we have temporal data from 500,000+ users over 4 years, from all over the world. I’m not interested in a particular data point, more a series of events. And what’s exciting is, we ourselves have generated these data sets.  

 

Do you get your hands in to research or do you tend to oversee?

Usually, these days I oversee. But saying that, with this data set, I’ve been knee-deep.  When my Post-Doc came to me with her findings and I realised I didn’t fully understand what she was saying to me, I went away to study it myself. 

 

Tell us more about the other parts of your work

I’m a Vice Principal, so I have a senior management role – but I still sneak in research…

 

Is there anything you wish you could do more of?

Research, of course (laughs) but I do love management and creating environments where other people can do research. If I had 100% research I wouldn’t be happy, the same with management.

I have a dream job, and I appreciate the mix I have.

I don’t supervise PhDs anymore because of my senior management role but I work with Post Docs. I have a wonderful team.

My very first PhDs student, a woman, is now a Professor at Stirling University (Professor Carron Shankland). I am so proud of her.

 

You must feel so proud to have supervised that journey!

Absolutely.

 

Tell us more about your journey to where you are now, then.

I did my first degree at Stirling.  We do all this stuff around league tables, but I didn’t look at any of that and I chose that university because of the hills! (laughs) oh, and then my stepson chose Glasgow because of the clubs!

I went to university to study Maths and Physics, I didn’t know about computer science. I didn’t even like the first course I took! But then I did a module in programming and that was it for me – programming is the best.

I did my PhD at St Andrews and to be honest, I had a hard time. I went through three supervisors, two left and then luckily, my third supervisor was superb. He spent a lot of time and care on me and had a profound effect on me; he set me up for life. He died recently and I’ll never forget him. He  wasn’t old, he died before his time and I miss him.

He was very strict on what I wrote, everything had to be precise and perfect. He taught me that every word counts. Sometimes we would be together for a whole day and wouldn’t get past the first page of what I had written. Tough love!

 

What did you do after your PhD?

I feel like I’ve worked or studied at every Scottish university! I started off at Edinburgh – now I’m in Glasgow, I came here for a temporary job and didn’t think I’d be here that long. Now I feel very strongly about Glasgow, it’s an excellent place to work especially for computer science.

I spent three years in Scottish Government as Chief Scientific Adviser – that wasn’t just computer science but all the sciences, physics and engineering – and I’ve been on various sabbaticals in companies. I do enjoy policy work. It is hard though and not easy to get in to, it can be difficult to understand what governments need.

 

So what does a typical day look like for you now?

Answering emails!

Because of my role in the college, I work with issues like staffing, and student numbers. I sit on the governing boards of the EPSRC research council. I’m often doing bits and pieces for Royal Society for Engineering, and helping out on programmes like computer science education in schools. There are a number of interventions happening at the moment around teaching computing and coding etc., but not enough research, particularly longitudinal work, on what is working. That’s not my research personally but it’s what I help colleagues to work on, and as an academic and computer scientist I care deeply about it.

I have regular meetings at Whitehall every few months with the Department for Education concerning the CS curriculum at school. 

I normally mark out one day a week for research – it never works out that way, as I’m up to my eyeballs in papers (laughs) I’ve always got a few of them on the go. Some of our papers have taken years to complete because of the nature of our data and long term goal.

By the way, this is also sensor data – because we attached sensors to record activity and interactions. Sensors can record digital as well as physical events.

 

What would you say has been the best opportunity you’ve had in your career?

I was extremely lucky at the time I started at Glasgow. The senior management at the time had noticed that computer science was emerging and on the brink of booming and they hired  several new people within a couple of years.

Lots of young staff got promoted and we had so much fun, it was a very exciting time.

The world is different now, it feels like there’s so much more bureaucracy now and more accountability.  The latter isn’t a bad thing in itself, but it takes away time from actually doing the work. 

My examiner for my PhD viva was actually a woman – a very senior woman in computing, she was pretty much the only one at the time. She took me under her wing and gave me a lot of advice and passed down a lot of opportunities. I think she’d be called a mentor now but she was really a fairly godmother.

 

A lot have women have mentioned mentors in interviews!

However, a lot of men have helped me as well as women. In my career, I’ve never been kept down by a man. Quite the contrary.

 

Do you find your field supportive of women?

I really do. The women in the field are well-networked and we’re supportive to each other and quite fond of each other.

 

Is there anything you’d recommend to women and girls who’d like to be you?

In the words of Nike, just do it! Well, why not?

For me, Computing has been a very nice field to be in as a woman. I have always felt that the men in the field are just as lost as everybody else, they’re not ogres, they are people!  Most times these young, male geeky students grow up to become nice, supportive men and colleagues.

There’s nothing to be frightened of – I think the things going on in areas like gaming is scary but that’s not really computing. I’ve just realised I’ve never actually played a game – oops, don’t tell anybody that (laughs) – but I understand why girls maybe might look at say, guys bashing away at games in front of a screen and think gaming or computing is not for them but these boys they’re not doing anything intellectual!

 

Your perspectives are really interesting – there is some division around women on their views on gender issues in computing and so on (STEM).

I am talking about my personal experience – I haven’t done the work or the research around gender and why people behave like they do.

I do think now, I’ve noticed with the younger students, there are issues with body image. There’s a very different atmosphere among the students now. I don’t think there was ever the excessive focus that we’re seeing now around women’s body image, and this obsession with women wearing sexualised clothing. We talk about oh, how do we get women in to STEM and so on, but we’re not talking about these conditions women are facing. Women are much more objects now. Don’t get me wrong, I like  makeup too these days,  I wear it, but I  never dreamt of buying and wearing make up in my teens and twenties – why would I?

We need to talk about it and I don’t think it’s spoken about as much as it should be. Women are much more objectified than they were in the 1970’s. I thought this is what feminism was all about!

Whilst all these opportunities are coming women’s way nowadays such as childcare, career, some of our culture seems to have regressed. Maybe it’s me but I do think women are seen more as sexual objects now, and we’ve taken some steps forward but many steps backwards.

I want women to do what I do (Computing Science) because it’s great, it’s really fascinating and really fulfilling. It has changed my life. 

Tell me, why aren’t we worried about men doing nursing, vet nursing, teaching? What is this excessive focus on what women are doing and where they are going? Get more men in to women’s work . 

 

What are you proud of at the moment?

I’m really proud of the research we’re doing in my EPSRC programme grant as a result of the funding and partnership we have across four universities, I help manage this. It’s called the Science of Sensor Systems Software Programme. I’m also very proud of my College – the research we do, the students, the people we attract.

 

Do you have a hero or heroine?

No…but I do have a piece of advice.

Whenever you’re agonising over a decision, I refer a bit of advice given to me by Professor (Ursula Martin) from the PhD viva I mentioned. She said: pick a famous male professor, and ask, what would they do?

I hate boring, long, ineffective meetings and so I often watch the chair of good meetings and pick up tips from them. Same with talks, I think ‘what is that I really liked about that what can I learn from the speaker?’

So no, not a singular person but I’m always on the lookout for good behaviours.

 

What do you do when the working day is done?  

I have been a long distance runner for a long time.  Sadly I don’t run as much, or as fast as I would like now, as I have arthritis in one foot.  So, I have stopped racing.  But I still get out 4 days a week.   I also play violin in a string trio and quintet, with Carron Shankland (my ex-PhD student and now Professor). Last year I played in the Maths and Stats ceilidh band, at the Glasgow union.  I couldn’t play all the tunes (my goodness they were fast) but I loved every minute of it.  Anyone needing a third fiddle?