Published 14th July 2019
Louise Lever took on the title of Research Software Engineer (RSE) some two years ago, but has arguably been performing the role for the past 25 years.
Lever is an RSE at the University of Manchester, where she specialises in data visualisation and analysis, web application development and HPC.
“I studied computer science here at the University, and my third-year project was in the computer graphics unit, as it was called at the time. Immediately after that, I got a summer student role with the group, doing scientific visualisation with a package called AVS,” she says.
That summer student role led on to a full-time job, and Lever has worked within the same group ever since.
“It’s effectively just changed its name several times. And there have been a lot of changes in terms of the things I do – a lot of visualisation, high performance computing, different languages, and working with different researchers on campus as well as outside, with commercial companies,” she says.
Over that time, she says, her title changed often.
“I’ve had titles like software engineer, research collaboration officer, they just kept making up titles that weren’t used by anyone else,” Lever says.
“Obviously my job changed at the same time, in that I started as a summer student and now I have some management responsibilities. But I think the work is pretty much the same: here’s a researcher with a problem – go and help them,” she says.
With the RSE title, everyone knows what it means, Lever says. “It’s known over multiple institutions and you don’t have to explain it, which is useful. Not that I’m looking to leave Manchester – after 25 years I think I’m reasonably well cemented here!”
The Manchester RSE group is one of the largest in the UK and Lever is hoping to grow it further with the development of a visualisation lab and some new staff to work in it.
“We’ve got a bit of kit at the moment and we’re going to go for another round of funding for that, to put in place some visualisation workstations, with VR and AR kits as well, so that people can come along and use it.
“Eventually we want a kind of research IT lab where collaborators can come in and take advantage of the kit we have,” she says.
“Essentially that’s what I came out of, in the past. I was part of a visualisation centre and we had a VR lab and so on. For various political reasons over the years we lost a lot of staff and funding, and things disappeared. But the political climate has changed and so we’re rebuilding!”
The RSE movement has helped with that political change, Lever says, because “people can at least recognise that this is an established group in an established role, that other universities are doing, and we’re in competition with them. Rather than just a kind of bespoke standalone group that nobody quite understands!”
Setting up the lab will also involve hiring some new staff.
“We’re looking to bring in some lower grade staff members, to bring them up and nurture them in the role. In the same way that I was, and other members in the team have gone through the same process. We’ve become a bit top-heavy so we want to bring in some new people,” she says.
Finally, the community that has developed around the RSE title is another positive, she says.
“I’ve been to both RSE conferences so far, and gave a talk on visualisation at the first one. I’m hoping to help with a talk at the next conference too. It’s a great, supportive community.”