A Career in E-Science, With a Few Twists and Turns

My interest in science started early, but the path to where I now find myself was far from an elegant, steady progression. Although not precocious in most respects, I learned how to read, mostly by myself, at age 4. From earliest childhood, in my tiny town in Brazil, I'd loved to be read to before falling asleep. I made enough progress in reading on my own to motivate my parents to give me all the opportunities from then on, until one day I found myself reading fluently (enough to get to sleep, at least). By my first day at school, I was reading well beyond the level of my classmates. Concluding that I was academically able, my parents continued to provide me with learning opportunities. For example, even to this day my native town has no proper bookshop. So my parents bought me a multivolume encyclopedia and a collection of children's classics, and I spent many hours reading them. (To this day I'm a voracious reader, in subjects that go well beyond the area of my professional expertise.)

Another important event was when I got a chemistry set for Christmas while I was still in primary school. Until then, science hadn't interested me much, but what with all the changes of colour, smell, and physical state; with the boiling and the (wee!) bangs, consequences were sure to follow, as we shall soon see.

First Chemistry, Then Computers

As soon as I left primary school, my foreign languages teacher decided I might benefit from dedicated attention. Once again supported by my parents, I seized the opportunity to study English as a foreign language. I did well enough that when I was 17 I was selected to spend a year as an exchange student in the United States. And there it was, in Bay Shore, New York, that I had my first exposure to high-quality science teaching. That experience, combined with the lingering memory of my well-used chemistry set, led me to decide to read chemistry at university.

Turns out I hated it, and after 2 years I dropped out. (I've often reflected on this decision. I think that, in the end, it was the right one, even though it delayed my ultimate entry into a scientific career.) After much retrospection, even though the teaching was uninspired and the material difficulties quite severe, I think I was simply not mature enough. Apart from my reading early, I have always been a slow learner.

It's now been 30 years since I took my first job, as a computer programmer. I only came to do a university degree (in economics) 10 years later, as a part-time, mature student. Over the next 15 years, my career in industry prospered. After holding two junior positions, I moved to a more technically challenging position, in what was at the time the largest information technology company in Latin America. (It had been set up by the federal government of Brazil to be its primary supplier of software systems.)

I became a de facto computer scientist. I rose through the ranks (carefully ducking managerial responsibilities all along) to reach a senior technical role. I relished being part of a group whose primary responsibility was to identify and introduce state-of-the-art technical solutions to the company's problems; for anyone who's motivated by novelty and complexity, as I am, this is as good as it gets.

Ironically, after a while I concluded that it wasn't good enough for me after all. I wanted to go back to academia and learn more about the underlying problems that in my job I could only skim over.

Funded by the British Council, I spent a year in the University of Edinburgh, U.K., doing a M.Sc. in knowledge-based systems. (During the 1980s, knowledge-based systems were flavour of the decade.) I enjoyed my studies enormously and thrived on the challenges. I learnt a great deal and was then ready to go back to my job and put what I had learned into practice.

Alas, it wasn't to be. While abroad, I had become a casualty of downsizing.

The opportunity then arose for me to take up a position as a researcher at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. I spent five extremely productive and enjoyable years there and, in the process, obtained my Ph.D. in computer science. Under the guidance of Professors M. Howard Williams and Norman Paton, I trained and developed as a researcher.

I found it exciting to share a lab with colleagues. The intellectual challenges we faced scared (that is the word) us into action. I learned the importance of focus, of staying the course when times are hard, of sharing and cherishing a critical attitude. I learned to aim for clarity, clarity, and more clarity. Most important, I learned to write well: each word, a lamp-post; the lot of them, a map. To this day I believe that the right word is worth a thousand poor pictures.

Being a late starter and long in the tooth, I decided to seek a permanent, tenured post as an academic. I spent a year and a half at Goldsmiths College, University of London, before moving to my current post at the University of Manchester 6 years ago.

Here in Manchester, I'm fortunate enough to be a member of one of the best computer science departments in the world. The department pioneered teaching and research in computer science in Britain. It was at Manchester that the first stored-program (and, hence, universal) computer was developed, in 1948. For a time, Alan Turing himself participated in these efforts, in the wake of his seminal work in mathematical logic, and in code-breaking during World War II. The department is still thriving and is at the forefront of many groundbreaking developments, such as the Semantic Web, the Grid, and e-Science.

In the British system, academics are expected to be involved in not only research and teaching but also administration. This means, respectively, striving to lead and influence developments in our areas of expertise, informing our teaching with the fruits of this research, and still being good at tackling the chores.

My most recent research has focussed on advanced forms of distributed information management. Most of the problems I have recently taken on stem from the revolutionary convergence of communications and computing, of which the World Wide Web is the best example. An area in which I have also collaborated intensely with my colleagues is bioinformatics, in which the proliferation of data resources presents a challenge to those of us who do research on integrating heterogeneous sources of information.

Technology to Query Remote Data Sources

Currently, I'm heavily involved in the United Kingdom's e-Science research initiative, a huge collective effort to transfer to science the benefits of emerging technologies, such as the Grid. My own focus has been on the development of technologies that can query remote data sources seamlessly and transparently. The recent accomplishment I feel most proud of is OGSA-DQP, a distributed query processor on the Grid. It is part of the influential myGrid project, which is undertaking to build high-level services for data and application resource integration, such as resource discovery, workflow enactment, and distributed query processing.

Bioinformatics is likely to play a crucial role in the new century. Most scientists would agree that the next wave of discovery in biology will take place in silico. If you are contemplating a move to join this quest, you should bear in mind that computing is mostly an analytical science, not an empirical one. In computing, one proceeds best by design rather than hands-on experimentation. For bench scientists, who love fieldwork and are driven to exploration by sheer curiosity, the shift to computing may require some careful reining in of natural impulses.

I'm also regularly involved in a number of research projects that employ full-time researchers. I supervise M.Sc. and Ph.D. candidates, and I have several pastoral responsibilities, especially among our research student population. I find that one of my greatest day-to-day challenges is balancing wisely the need to hold multiple meetings every week with saving enough time to keep doing research. In a science in which experiments and fieldwork are not prominent, this basically means time to read, think, and write. Here again, self-discipline and the ability to focus are vital. If asked for advice on following in my footsteps, I'm inclined to say, "Don't! Be sensible and, if you possibly can, go straight to the target!"

More seriously, what interests me most in science is the intellectual endeavour and the elusive chance to bring good to people's lives. I recommend that my students read and write--not just often but also critically, widely, deeply, joyfully. I also hold the view that science, competitive though it may be, is best done in partnership and collaboration. Ultimately, it is a journey to explore just how far you can unfold and unravel capabilities that perhaps you never suspected you had. And that, I found, finally, was good enough for me.

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