Extraordinary People – Melissa Terras

Reading time: 7 minutes

Edinburgh Innovations (EI) connects academic expertise with real-world challenges to drive innovation and impact through collaboration. Their Extraordinary People campaign celebrates the University’s innovators – ordinary people who have done extraordinary things with their academic careers and made their ideas work for a better world.

This month, the EI team spoke to Melissa Terras, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage, Founding Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society, Director of Research at the Edinburgh Futures Institute, and Co-Director of Creative Informatics.

Professor Terras

A leading international figure in the field of Digital Humanities, Melissa Terras has surprisingly never had a career plan. Instead, she has trusted her curiosity and held to a belief that the space between computer science and the humanities is where the magic happens.

“I’ve always got my antennae up, searching for the next interesting thing” says Melissa, and when she was just an undergrad her antennae picked up a signal that would go on to fundamentally shape her life. It was 1994 and her flatmate, a physics student, called her to his lab to check out this astonishing new thing he was using called the World Wide Web. Melissa was instantly enthralled, and her lifelong fascination with the possibilities of a digital world began. Melissa would go on from this moment to embark on a career in a field that didn’t exist at the time and become a leading international figure in Digital Humanities, the application of computational tools in traditional Humanities’ disciplines. But even before her Big Bang moment, Melissa was used to forging her own path.

A rare skillset

She grew up in Fife, the second child of parents whose families worked in building and mining. Her parents led the local Scouts and Brownies units, so Melissa was raised in an environment where adventure, self-sufficiency and a can-do spirit were all highly valued. A bright kid who was always looking for something to keep her brain occupied, Melissa did well at school and became the first in her family to get a university degree. She chose to study Art History and English Literature at the University of Glasgow, and while she became captivated by Classical art, she found the unstructured teaching time a little challenging. By this time her flatmate had already brought the internet to her attention, but it wasn’t until Melissa’s fourth year that she was given the chance to meaningfully engage with it by completing an experimental module on website building. “I was really good at it,” she says, still sounding mildly surprised by this.

It was exciting, and it excited me. Something had really clicked.

Melissa and her classmates were given the chance to submit their undergraduate dissertations as websites, and Melissa excelled. At the time, the Scottish Government was paying the fees for people to do conversion Master’s courses in Computer Science. Aware that the job prospects of Art History graduates were limited and keen to indulge her new passion for programming, Melissa leapt at the chance to enrol, again at the University of Glasgow. Here she found the pace and intensity of learning that she’d craved as an undergrad: 30 taught hours per week, plus another 20 hours of self-directed study. Somehow Melissa found the time in this punishing academic schedule to work part time as a web designer and teach the same undergraduate programming module she had taken only the year before. She graduated with a Distinction in Software and Systems.

An advert had been published, calling for Classics and Computer Science graduates to apply for a fully funded Engineering PhD at the University of Oxford. The PhD was to focus on image processing in order to help read Ancient Documents, but there were difficulties in finding candidates with the required educational background. A call was made to Professor Seamus Ross in the University of Glasgow’s Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute, asking if he knew anyone who possessed the rare skillset Oxford was looking for, and as it happened Ross had recently supervised a rather singular Master’s student. Professor Ross convinced and supported Melissa in applying for this opportunity. When she received the offer she didn’t need to think twice. “Being given the opportunity to do a funded PhD at a world-leading university in its most employable subject?” she says, incredulously.

For someone like me, whose parents were unemployed at points when I was an undergrad, and knowing the doors that somewhere like that would open up for me, it felt like being asked to go to the moon.

At first the terrain of Oxford was about as familiar as the moon. Having lived independently and dealt with utility bills, private landlords and summer jobs, Melissa was a little jolted by the culture shift at Oxford, where the details were taken care of and protocols were observed to the letter. She was to dress in an academic gown for dinner each night, eat in the communal dining hall at Christ Church College (which features as Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the Harry Potter film franchise) and sit only with the other graduate students. Melissa quite soon realised that her one cocktail dress wasn’t going to cut it. Just before moving to Oxford her Granny had taken her aside to offer some advice on handling social situations in which Melissa might feel out of her depth. Melissa called on it then, attacking the unfamiliar situations she found herself in with “aplomb and panache”, as instructed. It’s fair to say she pulled it off: Melissa’s friends later told her that she was so confident they’d been convinced she was a member of the Scottish aristocracy.

Professor Terras

A dream combination

Melissa’s PhD examined how advanced information engineering technologies could be used to interpret and read Roman texts, combining computer science and structured data analysis with digitisation of art gallery, library, archive, and museum (GLAM) content. It was a dream combination for Melissa, but she had no plan for what she would do next. The insecure and peripatetic life of a post-doc didn’t appeal, so instead she kept her antennae up and took a job at the Royal Academy of Engineering doing policy work. A year later she saw an advert for a permanent position at University College London (UCL). It was the first academic job she’d seen advertised that she qualified for, so she applied for it and was delighted to be offered the role.

Melissa stayed at UCL for 14 years, first teaching librarians about internet technologies and digitisation and then quickly working her way up, co-founding UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities and then becoming its Director. She worked on award winning digital projects, including Transcribe Bentham, The Great Parchment Book, and QRator, as well as authoring and editing numerous books, including Image to Interpretation: An Intelligent System to Aid Historians in Reading the Vindolanda Texts (OUP 2006),  Digital Humanities in Practice (Facet 2012), and the best-selling Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (Ashgate 2013). Along the way she got married, having fittingly met her husband online, and had three children without dropping her pace. “When I look back on that phase, building the programme up, building the Centre up, doing all the research grants, building up the research teams, publishing the books, and having three kids in two years – including twins! – it all seems unfathomable,” she says.

Melissa’s time at UCL was fulfilling and eventful, but when she heard about a role at the new Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) it felt as if the stars were aligning. Building digital capacity in EFI as the institute’s Research Director was an opportunity to help build something from the ground up: it would allow her to work in a space that celebrated and fuelled interdisciplinarity, and it would bring her closer to family. She applied for the position and has never looked back. Since coming to the University of Edinburgh Melissa has wasted no time in acquiring as many titles and responsibilities as humanly possible. She is Founding Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society, Co-Director of Creative Informatics, and Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage. Her next role at Edinburgh will see her expanding support for the use of applied computing in the Arts and Humanities. She somehow still finds the time to conduct her own research on advanced applied computing in the humanities, publishing books such as Picture-Book Professors: Academia and Children’s Literature (CUP 2018),  Electronic Legal Deposit: Shaping the library collections of the future (Facet 2020), and Millicent Garrett Fawcett: Selected Writings (UCL Press, 2022). She has more books in the pipeline, and is Scholarly Director of spinout company, Transkribus, which came out of an EU-funded collaborative research project she has been part of since 2012. The cooperative structure of Transkribus chimes with Melissa’s belief that digital innovation can and should be socially conscious, and she is keen to see innovation evaluated in a way that values social benefits as highly as financial gains. With so many professional commitments it’s hard to imagine Melissa ever having a moment to herself, but when she does you will likely find her hanging out with her kids, feeding the local crows, or making soup.

New challenges hover on the horizon and Melissa, never one to take it easy, is ready to take them on. But how does it feel to reflect on how she got to where she is now?

It was clear to me when I was getting into the internet that it was going to change the world.

“I was lucky to spot that there would be opportunities for me if I earned qualifications in the technology, while also being able to support the areas I care about in encouraging cultural heritage to enter the digital age. The whole academic thing was kind of incidental, but it’s the right environment for my busy brain. I’m having fun making it up as I go along, while also – I hope – contributing to and asking questions of our shared information environment, and figuring out the place of our past in our digital future.”


Each month, EI will be sharing a new story. Inspired by Melissa’s story? You can find out more about Extraordinary People on the EI website.

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Photography: Maverick Photo Agency