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!
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.
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 website, register your interest for fully booked events or sign up for future updates by subscribing to the Hartree Centre newsletter.