Al Tanner

Published 18th August 2021

Can you describe your background and your current role?

I started in undergraduate science as a mature student at 29 – a joint honours MSci in evolution and palaeontology. In my masters year I became interested in evolutionary genetics, and developed some command line skills for bioinformatics. After graduation, I was lucky enough that a scholarship in teaching and research PhD came up: having been involved in teaching earlier, this fit me well. My research was on compilation and analysis of genomic data to address evolutionary questions, plus teaching, tutoring and developing laboratory materials for undergraduates.

I was never wedded to my research field, and I couldn’t see myself joining the tenure-hunting diaspora. The coding I had learnt in my PhD was typically niche and scrappy, and I wanted to build those skills into broader, practical, more professional code. So I was happy to change field to do that, and I took a role in epidemiology. I held a post-doc position at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, where I worked to expand traditional epidemiological datasets through the inclusion of novel datatypes, namely social media and transactional observations. We call this “digital footprint epidemiology”. I continue to work on these projects, since 2019 as an RSE.

How did you become an RSE?

During this work in epidemiology, an RSE post came up at my university. Initially, I didn’t see myself as experienced enough to apply, but my supervisor disagreed. The role combines so many skills from postgraduate study, and on reflection I realised the role would fit me well. So I gave the job application a shot and here I am! I have been a member of the University of Bristol RSE and the Jean Golding Institute for Data Science since December 2019, and they are fantastic groups to be part of – especially as both groups are growing and diversifying.

When did you first hear the term “RSE”?

In the job application! Perhaps I had heard the term before then, I am not sure. But it wasn’t on my radar as something I could or should do. 

What is your favourite thing about your work and being an RSE?

I enjoy being a problem solver in a research context. In a lab group, nobody can spend 100% of their time on building software or attending data-centric issues. PIs have teaching, admin, networking, grant-applications – as well as their research – responsibilities. The post-docs are keeping abreast of the frontiers of their field, researching, reviewing, seeking opportunities for their next career steps. And postgraduate students are working on their projects, and developing their research and communication skills. An RSE, in contrast, can step in and be focussed on computational work and software development. So, for me, it is great to be able to call on everything I have learned without too many of the typical academic pressures to distract – while understanding what pressures others in the group might be dealing with.

I also enjoy passing on what knowledge I have, in particular to students. When I was a student, I wished I had someone around to help me with my coding. So, I try to be that person I really needed during my own earlier research work.

And what is the least favourite?

Hmmm I don’t really know. Worrying that my software has a bug? Worrying that I have missed a library that would make things easier? The standard concerns with developing software I suppose!

Did you already have any interactions with the RSE Society and the RSE community? If yes, which?

Before becoming an RSE? No. But since then, of course! I became a member of the SoRSE when I got my position, and am looking forward to SeptembRSE this year. My group’s Slack channel is active and friendly – an absolute lifesaver especially given our remote-working times. I couldn’t do my job without the support and encouragement of my team members. And of course the wider Slack workspace is a great resource (technically and socially) to be able to tap in to.

Do you see yourself as an academic, researcher, software engineer, technician…? All of it? Something else? A mix of one or two terms?

I see myself as an professional ancillary para-support techno-ally. If I was in an army, I would be a bridge-builder! Or a medic. I don’t see myself as an academic – to me these are tenure-track/holding, field-immersed researchers, tasked with finding the good, answerable questions, and enabling teams to address those questions. Principal investigators need engineers who understand the path from hypothesis to publication – the R in RSE. So I suppose I would see myself as a terrain-savvy but field-naive software engineer. Well – not completely naive of course! Naturally, I am a life-long science enthusiast, so I always hope I know enough background to understand the research questions and how they are being addressed. Not to say that RSE is purely a science thing – I am very interested in how RSEs might be employed in arts or humanities.

What do you see as your most likely future career path from here? And what would be your ideal career path?

I still see myself as an intermediate-level coder, and right now I am enjoying building my fluency in software engineering principles and a few languages. Maybe I would like to develop some code-teaching resources, although to be honest I feel a little out of touch with students since COVID. I would like to get better at visualisations, but I haven’t had much need to work on that side of things recently. But to answer your question, I think “career path” is an emergent property, for me. I feel privileged to have a position requiring me to be creative, technical, up-to-date, communicative, to be constantly learning. As long as I am learning new things, I’m content. So, maybe check back with me in a couple of years, but right now developing my RSE skills fits with my personal goals.

In your view, how could RSEs be better supported in their work? What do you need? What is missing?

It seems that RSE’s profile is expanding in university research, through the hard work and advocacy of many people. During my PhD years, I would bemoan the wasteful structure of postgraduate study, with scant high-level technical staff, instead relying on a conveyor-belt of graduate students who would build their skills, often only to leave shortly after. But RSE is a massive step towards fixing those kinds of problems. RSEs are good for research groups for a variety of reasons, and therefore good for universities as a whole. So continuing to build on that advocacy and profile-raising will lead to better support all round, I think.