Meet the team | Training and Events Manager

We spoke to Nia Alexandrova about her role at the STFC Hartree Centre, what keeps her coming into work every day and how the shift towards remote-working has changed the way events are run.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your role at the Hartree Centre?  
I am the Training and Events Manager, so my responsibilities involve building and designing the Hartree Centre’s training strategy and programme. This means working with the researchers in their area of applied research to design specific courses and learning materials for different audiences and entry levels. It can also involve managing the process of organising and delivering an event. Because of my background and own research, I am able to support people in finding better ways to teach depending on different audiences. Specifically, my research is in collaborative training and collaborative learning in technology-rich environments. 

So your background is in research? 
My education was in engineering but that was a very long time ago! I started as a research assistant and was involved with some programmes that were being overhauled and transitioned from Liverpool University to the University of Reading. I then went to work in Barcelona Supercomputing Centre to help define and develop their training programme. We built up a team, starting with myself and later Maria-Ribera Sancho (former Dean of FIB – Barcelona School of Informatics), to create a coordinated approach. from the ground up to create a coordinated approach. When I came back to the UK, I joined the STFC Talent Pool and this opportunity in training and events came up which was well suited to my skills! I also knew Alison Kennedy (who had just become the Director of the Hartree Centre at the time) from being acquainted with Women in HPC and she confirmed to me that this was probably a place where I would want to work! 

A woman with mid length brown hair and a mustard coloured shirt presenting in front of a large curved screen showing an image of a supercomputer.

So she was right then! What keeps you coming to work every day?  
I hate doing the same thing over and over again and working at the Hartree Centre is very exciting and quite challenging in that way – every day is different! For example with HNCDI’s EXPLAIN training programme, we are working on the challenge of enticing people to engage with training they may never have thought they needed. It’s easy to present supercomputing and AI to an academic audience but more difficult to engage with individuals or private companies and their leadership, who may not be aware of the benefits of upskilling their teams in digital transformation, computing or AI. At the moment we are in an interesting time, people are becoming aware of the need for digital transformation. 

For the Hartree Centre too, the entire time I’ve been working here we have been growing and evolving. We are finding different ways to develop things, finding the best way to support people and exploring how to teach in the best possible way. The challenge is ensuring that when you’re training individuals, you’re giving them the skills they need not just in their own job, but to go and change behaviours and attitudes to digital transformation in their own company. 

What would you say has been your biggest challenge recently? 
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, all our training has been hands-on and face-to-face in the physical Hartree Centre building. So the recent – and very sudden – transition to virtual events were initially very disruptive for us and a time for fast problem-solving! 

However now we can recognise that it was an inevitable step forward that was just accelerated by the global circumstances, and the Hartree Centre Training, Events and Communications teams worked together really well to find a way to support everyone digitally in a short timeframe. It became an ultimately positive experience that enabled us to enhance our training offering and we are continuing to explore the use of hybrid, virtual and face-to-face events and refine our approach. 

Woman wearing mustard colour shirt pointing at a computer screen and smiling.

So as an events manager, what kind of events do you like to attend? 
 Big international conferences like Supercomputing or ISC are always interesting. When you are physically attending these exhibitions, they feel enormous, we are talking about thousands and thousands of people – and that is an exciting atmosphere. I can share best practice with the global HPC training community and be part of meetings and get involved with the communities that I wouldn’t encounter locally. It helps you to see the bigger picture and also gain some exposure for your organisation. I have seen some really interesting keynotes and in recent years there was a trend of not only inviting people from  the high performance computing (HPC) industry but people who are slightly outside of it. That is a really interesting way to see how someone’s work in industry intersects with HPC outside of the HPC research community.

When you’re not at work, what do you most enjoy doing?  
I love drawing so I go to a life drawing group every Monday. I don’t like to sit and watch TV, I have to have my hands busy so I do knitting and crochet a bit. I love the Daresbury Laboratory book club, it’s a lot of fun, and I’m glad we continued it on Zoom during the pandemic. I’m grateful for living near Daresbury because it is a very beautiful area. I always knew this but during lockdown, I started to appreciate it even more because it allows you to do 5 or 10 minute walks very close to home and you get to go around and see ducks, flowers and woodlands and all the time I’m thinking if I was living in a big city I would miss this. 

You can catch up with Nia’s work by exploring our upcoming training events on the Hartree Centre websiteregister your interest for fully booked events or sign up for future updates by subscribing to the Hartree Centre newsletter 

Data science and AI help for SMEs in Cheshire and Warrington

Hi! I am Tim Powell, a Business Development Manager at the Hartree Centre. In this blog post I am going to be talking about a relatively new funding opportunity for SMEs that I’m working on at the moment, Cheshire & Warrington 4.0. 

Tim Powell, Business Development Manager, STFC Hartree Centre

So, what is CW4.0? 

Cheshire and Warrington 4.0 (CW4.0) is an EDRF fully-funded programme of hands on support for businesses in Cheshire and Warrington focused on the exploration and adoption of digital technologies. The programme is built on the success of LCR 4.0 which supported over 300 companies in the Liverpool City Region to develop new products, decrease time to market, and accelerate productivity and turnover – all while creating 125 new jobs!  

Through the CW4.0 programme SMEs in Cheshire and Warrington can access technical expertise from our team of experts here at the Hartree Centre. Our data scientists and software engineers have a strong track record of working on collaborative projects to solve industry challenges. To give you an idea, here are some examples of the areas we work in:

  • Artificial Intelligence applications, including machine learning and natural language processing 
  • Predictive maintenance and data analytics 
  • Modelling and simulation 
  • Software development and optimisation 
  • Cloud migration and applications 
  • IoT (Internet of Things) integration 

Our first CW4.0 engagement has already kicked off with G2O Water Technologies, Tristan Philips the VP of Engineering has this to say about his hopes for the outcome of the project: 

“Being able to do Computational Fluid Dynamics at Hartree is essential to model and design enhanced membranes that are able to filter almost unfilterable waters, extract precious materials from water streams and decarbonise the water industry.”

Tristan Phillips, VP Engineering
G2O Water Technologies

We have also just kicked off a project with Chester-based Circles Health & Wellbeing who are looking to develop an AI chatbot for assistance in mental health services and are developing more projects in the pipeline covering areas such as predictive maintenance, using machine learning to improve routing algorithms and building data warehouses. 

“We are excited to be working with STFC on this hugely important healthcare project. Mental health patient numbers are ever-growing and placing a huge strain on healthcare services which are buckling under the pressure. Working with the Hartree Centre – a respected AI development partner – will enable us to build a dedicated healthcare assistant solution that will set a benchmark for similar future conversational AI assistants, delivering cost-efficient, patient-centric support services that enhance a client’s healthcare experience, build confidence in more human/tech blended healthcare solutions and deliver positive, measurable outcomes. The pressure to get this right is colossal and we are delighted to have such a talented and knowledgeable partner to work alongside us.”

Tom Mackarel , Director and Co-founder
Circles Health & Wellbeing

How does it work? 

CW4.0 projects can vary from creating a brand new proof of concept (PoC) or minimum viable product (MVP) to help accelerate a start-up to market or to add value to an existing product through digitisation. The process of engaging with us on a CW4.0 project is simpler than many other grant applications.  

After an initial discussion with me to define the challenge statement followed by an eligibility check, I engage with our technical staff to write a project scope that will look to create a custom solution to a company’s specific industry challenge. The project scope will be presented back to the company for fine tuning before we go ahead and submit the final application with each CW4.0 technical project typically lasting 2 – 4 months. 

The process works really well for companies who already know how and what they want to innovate on but if your company is interested in digital innovation and not sure which direction to take or the options available to you, don’t worry, we can help with that too.  

CW4.0 is also designed to help signpost companies in the right direction by offering a fully funded, risk-free, feasibility study or digital innovation report. Our experience working across a wide range of industries from engineering and manufacturing and life sciences to energy, professional services and transport will be used alongside our technical expertise to benefit you. The feasibility study or digital innovation report will be created working alongside your company as domain experts to discover what will work best for you.

Manufacturing your digital future | CW4.0

Not just digital innovation – from virtual to physical 

Here at STFC, alongside the Hartree Centre there is another department who are delivering support as part of CW4.0 so I would like to take some time to showcase how the Campus Technology Hub (CTH) can also benefit SMEs across Cheshire and Warrington. 

Companies can access a range of 3D printing capabilities and explore how 3D printing could aid product development and streamline manufacturing processes to reduce time and costs and look at rapid prototyping of complex designs on a project-by-project basis. With 3D printers ranging from desktop-sized, fused deposition modelling printers that can print in a variety of plastics, through to industrial metal 3D printers and material varying from plastics like PLA or ABS, to material reinforced with fibreglass or carbon fibre, resin polymers and 316 stainless steel – the possibilities are endless! 

To find out more about accessing support from the Campus Technology Hub specifically, you can contact my colleague Michaela at michaela.kiernan@stfc.ac.uk

Am I eligible? 

The main eligibility criteria for CW4.0 are that the company is classed as an SME, haven’t used the allocated state aid, and have a registered premise in the postcode catchment area below: 

Cheshire Warrington Chester 
CW1 WA1 CH1 
CW2 WA2 CH2 
CW3 WA4 CH3 
CW4 WA5 CH4 
CW5 WA6 CH64 
CW6 WA7 CH65 
CW7 WA8 CH66 
CW8 WA13  
CW9 WA16  
CW10   
CW11   
CW12   

Who can help me? 

To discuss how the Hartree Centre can provide innovation support to your business, help increase productivity, access new markets, kickstart new product and job creations and enable growth through CW4.0, please get in touch with at info@candw4.uk. 


Part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), CW4.0 brings together the combined expertise and capabilities of the Virtual Engineering Centre (University of Liverpool), Liverpool John Moores University, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the Northern Automotive Alliance. 

Caught in the data loop?

Fresh from the Open Data Institute (ODI) Summit 2019 and bursting with questions, Holly Halford, Science and Business Engagement Manager for the STFC Hartree Centre, explores the use of personal data for online marketing and asks: how do we stop ourselves getting stuck in the data loop?

So, your friend is getting married. You post a few harmless pictures on Instagram, throwing in a few #wedding tags for good measure. The next day, you’re scrolling through your social media feeds and perusing news sites only to find that every sponsored post, every inch of ad space is now trying to sell you wedding dresses. Wedding venues. Wedding fayres. Decorative wedding trees. Things you didn’t even know existed – all useless to you and, presumably, the advertiser – but the ads are still there, taking up precious mindshare.

But you asked for this – you were the one who carelessly hashtagged your way into the echo chamber… right?

From targeted advertising to political persuasion, whether to help or hinder us, our personal data is being used on a daily basis to effect changes in our behaviour. From the extra purchase you didn’t really need to make, to the life milestones you are forced to start thinking about because your data fits a certain demographic.

New research, conducted by the ODI and YouGov and published to coincide with the recent ODI Summit 2019, concluded that nearly 9 in 10 people (87%) feel it is important that organisations they interact with use data about them ethically – but ethical means different things in different contexts to different people. In discussion at the conference, Prof. Nigel Shadbolt and Sir Tim Berners-Lee highlighted that research shows people are reasonably accepting of personal data being used for targeted advertising, but less amenable to it being used for political advertising. Tim proposed a possible reasoning for this, positioning himself as in favour of targeted commercial advertising – at least towards himself – as it generally helps to find the things you want faster, and also helps companies to make the sales that keep them in business. A “win-win” for both consumer and economy, then.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee in conversation with Professor Nigel Shadbolt and Zoe Kleinman at the ODI Summit 2019.

He suggested that political advertising is different in nature because it may make people act in a way that isn’t truly in their own personal best interest due to a manipulation or misrepresentation of information. It’s of course, possible to argue that the same can be true of misleading commercial advertising but the potential impacts are almost always limited to being purely financial – spending money you didn’t need to, getting into debt etc – and these ramifications are not significantly different to the pitfalls of marketing via any other route. Traditional print media, billboards or television advertising have all probably promised you a better life at some point, if you just buy that car, that smartphone or that deodorant.

Tim has a point – targeted advertising can be useful and makes some logical sense, especially if we have actively searched for related terms or shown our interest in a certain product or service by interacting with content related to it. Despite how 1984 it can feel sometimes, I’m actually personally much more comfortable with data-driven advertising based around our active behaviors as opposed to the other option – the demographic based approach, which I feel has the potential to be far more insidious.

There’s a beauty product advert in my Facebook feed. If I click on the “why am I seeing this” feature, I am quickly informed that Company X “is trying to reach females aged 25 to 54”. Whilst the transparency is a welcome change, it doesn’t fill me with hope that a significant proportion of the media thrust upon us each day is tailored based on nothing more than gender or other divisive demographics. I often wonder how many men have beauty product adverts showing up in their feeds compared to say… cars, watches, sporting equipment? (I unscientifically and anecdotally tested this theory on a colleague recently, a man in a similar age bracket to myself. He reported an unusually high capacity of DIY ads.)

Credit: Death To Stock

The data bias is there, entrenched in historic trends that have potentially damaging consequences in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes and more – if your demographic fits the initial (and undoubtedly biased) statistical trend, do we now, via data-driven marketing, perpetuate it for all eternity?

But how do we address the very fundamentals of marketing and communications without perpetuating stereotypes and pushing conformity to social norms? As a marketing and communications professional, I confess that the commonly used concept of developing “personas” to describe your target audience and help articulate your message more clearly to them has never sat well with me, because those personas by nature are based on stereotypes and assumptions. Knowing your audience is an absolutely crucial pillar of marketing, but if you only ever acknowledge an existing or expected audience, how do you access new markets and prevent alienating potential customers outside of that bracket? Not to mention the ethical concerns this approach flags up. We need to take a more creative approach to get messages heard without excluding anyone. It may not be the easiest route but I’m certain that it is possible, more ethical and when executed successfully, more effective.

So, what can we, as consumers, do to prevent trapping ourselves with our own hashtags and search terms? The current options seem fairly lacking. Perhaps we can turn to AI-driven discovery of “things you might enjoy”. Features like this can be found on most common media platforms, with varying degrees of success. But as the algorithms get more accurate, the tighter the loop closes. As Tim purported, the intention is to be helpful and save us time – if only to provide a good user experience that keeps you invested in using the platform, of course – but everything it suggests will be based on existing tastes and activity. If you’re predisposed to playing Irish folk music, good luck getting Spotify to suggest you might have an undiscovered a passion for post-progressive rock.

Credit: Death To Stock

This presents a bigger problem when considering the landscape of opinions, causes and politics. The idea of social media curating our own personal echo chambers and arenas of confirmation bias is not a new one. It’s true that we can subscribe to contrasting interest groups, a tactic some journalists have been using – but how many of us have the patience to subject ourselves to a cacophony of largely irrelevant content, if it’s not a professional requirement? A more pressing question is: if we don’t interact positively (or at all) with that “alternate” content, does another algorithm begin to de-prioritise it until we no longer see it anyway and we’re back where we started?

Is the answer in a change of algorithms, then? The tactic of ignoring trends and demographics seems to be entirely at odds with the notion of creating better, more accurate AI algorithms and data-driven technologies. Whether we like it or not, they are meant to do exactly that – generate accurate predictions based on statistically evidenced trends and demographics. I feel quite strongly that a great deal more creative thought is required to ensure that ethical practices and regulations are instigated in line with the pace of technological advancement, and prevent data-driven marketing from driving us round in circles for the foreseeable future.

Afterword: I wrote the majority of this blog post before the launch of the Contract for the Web recently announced by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. It presents an encouraging and much needed first step towards safeguarding all the opportunities the internet presents and championing fairness, safety and empowerment. Now, let’s act on it.

Better Software, Bigger Impact

Since the term was first coined in 2012 , Research Software Engineering has experienced a rapid growth, first in the UK and then overseas.  Today there are at least 20 RSE groups at Universities and Research Institutes across the UK alone, alongside thousands of self-identifying RSEs, numerous national RSE associations, and since earlier this year, a registered Society of Research Software Engineering* to promote the role of RSEs in supporting research. 

The core proposition of RSEs is “Better Software, Better Research” – by improving the quality of software developed by researchers, we enable higher quality research.  Software quality is a broad topic, but the most common benefits of academic RSEs are:

  • improved reliability – fewer software errors leading to incorrect results
  • better performance – enabling more accurate and/or bigger science
  • reproducibility – increasing confidence in scientific results.

Since early 2018 the Hartree Centre has been building up an RSE capability of its own, but for slightly different reasons.  Rather than being measured on research output, Hartree Centre’s mission is to create economic impact through the application of HPC, data analytics and AI.  Most often this means taking existing research software, and applying it to solve industrial challenges.  One of the key challenges we have is crossing the “valley of death” from a proof-of-concept, where we demonstrate that a given tool, algorithm or method can in principle be used to solve a problem, to actual industry adoption of this approach.  While reliability and performance are still important here, often the key issues for a company adopting new software are usability, portability and security.

In practice, while our RSE team shares many skills in common with academic RSEs – such as employing best practices for use of version control, code review and automated testing – we specialise in areas like building simple User Interfaces for complex software, automating workflows involving HPC and deploying web applications securely to the cloud ready for industry use. 

Introducing some members of the Hartree Centre RSE team.

Our team has grown to 14 staff, comprising a range of roles from Degree Apprentices, RSEs with specialisms in HPC, AI and data analytics, to Full Stack Developers and a Software Architect. 

Just like academic RSEs, we’re at our best when working in collaboration, whether that’s with the other technology teams across the Hartree Centre, commercial clients, or our technology partners like IBM Research. 

Some of the projects we’ve been working on recently include:

We’re still recruiting – if you want be part of the Hartree RSE journey please apply here, we’d love to hear from you!

*Full disclosure: I’m a founding trustee of the society.

Meeting the Women of Silicon Roundabout – present and future!

Aiman Shaikh, one of our Research Software Engineers recently attended Women of Silicon Roundabout 2019 – one of the largest gatherings of female technologists in Europe – held at ExCeL London. In this blog post, Aiman tells us more about her motivations for attending the two day event aiming to make an impact on the gender gap and boost careers of attendees.

My main motivation for attending the conference was the opportunity to be among 6,000 attendees who were all like me: eager to connect, learn and take action on gender diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Women of Silicon Roundabout 2019 brought together a programme of inspirational keynotes, panel discussions, networking opportunities, technical classes, and career development workshops – it was the first and only conference I have attended where female technical speakers took centre stage.

For me, the chance to hear from inspirational leaders – many of whom were women – about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, blockchain and cloud computing. This coupled with the strong messages throughout the conference about the importance of diversity and inclusion was truly incredible.

Over 6,000 delegates attended the two day event at ExCeL London.
Image credit: Women of Silicon Roundabout.

One of the many worthwhile sessions I attended was from Denise Jones, Senior Product Manager, LetGo. Denise discussed whether AI has given rise to new and distinctive ethical issues and she challenged the group with statements like “algorithms can predict user preference based on previous activity and based on other users who are like them” raising important questions about how we as technologists can be mindful of bias in our work with AI. It made me really consider the balance of collecting data to provide a better user experience and product personalisation as good thing but collecting too much data and over-targeting audiences can go wrong and be frustrating for users if it’s not relevant.

I also attended the “Confident Speaking for Women” workshop led by Sarah Palmer, Director of European Business Development at PowerSpeaking. This was an incredibly useful 60 minutes packed full of exercises specifically designed to improve presentation skills. It gave loads of helpful tips for ‘presentation newbies’ like myself such as the importance of trying things out in advance and how to project confidence and credibility, especially through using effective nonverbal language. I’m looking forward to implementing several of these strategies in my own conference talks!

Another real highlight of the conference was the Women of Colour networking lunch on the second day of the event. Organised by Google, it was a chance to ‘inspire and be inspired.’ I was fortunate enough to meet with so many role models in tech and find out from them how they progressed in their career, how they managed their work/life balance and grow my own professional networks. I was also lucky to be able to meet with groups of fantastic early career women who were keen to find out more about my job and the Hartree Centre. I really enjoyed telling them more about my role and day to day life as part of the Research Software Engineering team – I hope to see some of them apply for some of our job vacancies as they would be great assets to any team!

Aiman Shaikh | Research Software Engineer | Hartree Centre
Image credit: STFC

I loved this conference – it provided a much-needed, necessary platform to women in technology, inspiring attendees to talk and network with women working across different industries and using a variety of emerging technologies in their day to day jobs. I’ll certainly be taking many of the lessons learned back to the Hartree Centre – it has inspired me to think about AI and data analytics in some of my upcoming projects and how I can make sure I continue to incorporate diversity and inclusion in to my work and professional networks.

Introducing HPiC, the Hartree Centre’s Raspberry Pi Cluster

The Hartree Centre has a new pocket-sized addition to our data centre! One of our Research Software Engineers, Tim Powell tells us all about it…

​HPiC has been created as a host for software demonstrations and for outreach events. It simulates a supercomputer by networking together 20 Raspberry Pi 3 Model B’s, allowing them to communicate and execute parallel programs.

The Raspberry Pi is a low-cost, low-power, single-board computer designed to make computer science more accessible to amateur developers, schools, and developing countries. Released in 2013, Raspberry Pis can be used for a wide range of applications – from robotics, to music streaming, to smart mirrors! The incredibly versatile Raspberry Pi 3 computer has a Quad Core 1.2Ghz ARM processor at its heart, 1GB of RAM, WiFi, Bluetooth capabilities and a whole host of device connectivity via a GPIO connector.

​​HPiC replicates high performance computing (HPC) techniques and can perform over 1,000 million instructions per second. HPiC has 19 ‘worker’ nodes (1 node = 1 raspberry pi), each with a quad-core ARM processor, resulting in 76 cores to utilise for parallel computing. The remaining node is called the ‘Head Node’ and allows us to interact and submit jobs to the ‘worker’ nodes.

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International Women’s Day 2018 | Janet Lane-Claypon

To mark International Women’s Day, Hartree Centre Data Scientist, Simon Goodchild writes a blog post to celebrate the work of a pioneering epidemiologist and doctor Janet Lane-Claypon. At the time of writing the post, Simon was studying medical statistics for the first time as part of a statistical society diploma and was surprised to have not previously heard about a woman who had invented two of the key techniques he was learning about!

Janet Lane-Claypon

How do you know that your treatment actually works?

How do you know whether something in the environment may impact upon your health?

These are some of the most basic and most important questions in medicine and epidemiology. Getting good answers is vital, and nowadays there are established procedures for finding sensible answers. Several of these can be traced back to the under-recognised work of Janet Lane-Claypon in the early part of the 20th century.

Continue reading “International Women’s Day 2018 | Janet Lane-Claypon”