This week Mona’s guest is Professor Jane Hillston, Head of the School of Informatics and Deputy Vice-Principal for Research.
Mona Siddiqui: Jane, first of all can you tell us what is informatics?
Jane Hillston: Informatics is the study of information – how it is produced, how it is stored, and how it is processed to create knowledge. In the School of Informatics we look at information as it is processed by both natural systems – we have colleagues who look at DNA, for example, as a processing of information in a natural system – and also engineered systems, such as computers. I think most people think of it as computer science and perhaps artificial intelligence (AI) but we do also look at the natural systems from the level of DNA up to the brain so it is a very broad and interesting topic.
MS: Where are the changing trends that you have seen in recent years?
JH: I think one of the obvious trends that we have seen is the rise of data science and machine learning. These are ways of taking data and detecting patterns that humans can’t necessarily see – sometimes because the amount of data is vast – and then harnessing those patterns to help with making decisions or understanding situations that then help other human endeavours. We always say that informatics is really to improve lives for people in various different ways. For example, we have a CDT [Centre for Doctoral Training] in biomedical AI and that’s looking at how you can take information about people’s genetic profile and other biological signatures to understand why some people develop disease and some people don’t or why some people respond to certain treatments and other people don’t. This complements laboratory science in biomedical science with what’s called in silico modelling. What’s changed to make those approaches much more feasible is that the power of computer systems is ever growing. Nowadays, the phone that we carry in our pockets has about as much computational power as a supercomputer 30 years ago so you can imagine how much power modern supercomputers actually have! Things that were previously out of reach because they were computationally too hard, so perhaps they would take too long to solve, those are now within reach so we are seeing this blossoming of particularly artificial intelligence and machine learning to tackle many different problems.
MS: This reliance that we have on computer learning and all these different aspects of technology, do you see how that has changed human life? Do you think it has changed it for the better?
JH: Yes, I believe it has. I think you have to look at the last year to see that. There has been obviously huge praise for the work that has been done developing vaccines but if we think of what our lives would have been like without computer technologies that had been developed in the preceding 20 years, lockdown would have been a lot worse. Things like Skype, ordering your groceries online, those are fairly obvious things that everybody experienced but also doing the logistics of getting PPE to where it was needed, planning the beds around different hospitals, knowing when patients had to be transferred to other hospitals, these are all computer-supported decision processes. Then you get on to the things like trying to understand from the data who will respond to which treatments and helping the outcomes for people who unfortunately did catch Covid. I think the pandemic has underlined how much computer technology has become woven into our lives but also the benefits that it brings.
MS: What has been your biggest challenge as Head of School?
JH: I think trying to keep people’s morale up. It has been an extraordinarily challenging time for people. The uncertainty always makes people have heightened anxiety. Many people were worried about their families, not necessarily in this country but in other countries too. Communication and visiting was more difficult than usual plus the risk of illness so people had external factors on top of which there was a lot of additional work within the University as we coped with the changing situation and tried to do the best for our students.
MS: So Jane, looking back to either your recent or distant past, is there one major regret that you could share with us?
JH: I’m sorry but I have to say no because I am just not someone who does regrets. I really thought about this and I always try to make the best decision I can in the circumstances with the information that I have and then whatever the outcome of that I try to make the most of it and move forward so I am not someone who habitually looks backwards. I am always looking forward and eager to meet the next challenge so I really struggle to think of a regret.
MS: That’s really uplifting. That’s a perfectly valid answer, thank you Jane. So looking forward, what’s your one hope that you carry forward?
JH: I think my hope is that particularly for the sake of our students that things return to greater normality in the next academic year. I think it has been extraordinarily difficult, particularly if you think of the first year undergraduates who came to university this year and had far from a normal experience both in terms of their studying but perhaps even more importantly in terms of their social interactions and their ability to grow and develop new interests. They have been incredibly resilient and I am very proud of all our students in the School of Informatics with how well they have coped so I hope for a better year for them in the next year.