Published 14th July 2019
Sue Thorne is a Senior Research Software Engineer with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s Hartree Centre, where she works on the Software Outlook Project.
“I explore new techniques in software writing, to see if they should be used within scientific simulation codes. And if I decide that they should be, then I provide the training. That helps the people who are involved in the code development to know whether to spend their time doing that work, or not,” Thorne says.
Thorne moved into the RSE role after a degree in computer science, and then moving into computational mathematics where she realised she was interested in improving the support for scientific researchers.
Hers is not a traditional RSE role, she says, as she is working on other people’s software, rather than developing her own.
“We work with a lot of different groups, from a wide range of scientific areas, and we ask them for suggestions on what would be helpful for them. I’ll take their software and develop it using the new techniques they suggest. Even if it doesn’t work – and I’d say that’s about half the time – it’s still of importance for them to know not to use it,” she says.
Thorne then develops online training around the technique.
“I try to make that more general, not just for that one piece of software., but so that it can be used across a wide range of scientific areas. That’s what EPSRC is keen for me to do, to make it quite general. So perhaps I’ll try it on some molecular dynamics code, and then make the training applicable to a lot more developers,” she says.
Thorne is also working on promoting reduced precision in scientific software.
“Most mathematical software uses what is called double precision in the level of accuracy for stored numbers. If we can persuade people to use single precision that will reduce the amount of data, and the time to process the data, by half. It’s a trade off between accuracy and time, really. And if you only spend half the time doing a calculation, you’re reducing the energy use, too,” she says.
The Research Software Engineer title has been a real benefit to Thorne’s career, she says, both in terms of people understanding her role, and in the community that has built up around the term.
“The actual roles that people perform can be very different, but we do have common areas, and it’s also good just to understand the problems we all face, like being recognised for the work that we do. I went to the RSE conference last year and it was really helpful to meet lots of people and understand what their challenges are,” she says.
“I was also recently promoted, and being able to say ‘I am an RSE’ definitely helped in that,” she says.
Her new, more senior role is satisfying, she says, “as I’ve taken on more management, in terms of both people management and project management. Although it does mean I don’t get as much time to do the technical work I enjoy…”