Sam Bland

Meet our new RSE Lead

Sam Bland from the University of York is taking over from Marion Weinzierl as our new Research Software Engineer (RSE) Theme Lead. In an interview with us, he discusses his plans for the theme going forward.

Where do you work and what is your role? (Institution, department, role, multiple if appropriate)

Since the start of 2020 I have worked as an RSE in the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) York centre, based in the University of York’s Department for Environment and Geography. Since then (like many RSEs) I have tackled a wide range of projects from building crop models to run on High Performance Computers(HPC), developing air quality citizen science apps for schools in the UK and consulting with researchers on best practices for their Digital Tool development.

How long have you been in Research Software Engineering?

Like many RSEs, my career path is not linear. Prior to my role in SEI, I completed my MArch in Architecture at Manchester University where I focused on the development of software to design within the complexity of cities. Since then, I have also tried my hand at software entrepreneurship where I learned the balance between client dreams and the practicalities of reality.

What will your role be as RSE Theme Lead? (How will you help RSEs, how can they reach out to you, do you have a particular focus or philosophy?)

Right now, the most important part of my role is to raise awareness of the presence and purpose of RSEs in academic research.. I have spoken to many software developers in academia who are either not aware they are an RSE or have not connected with the community of RSEs in the N8CIR. Part of this task will involve speaking to RSEs to develop a clear picture of the many forms the role can take and to understand the shared challenges and support that is required. I will also support the growing BEDE HPC community and collaborate with RSE leaders across the N8 to identify collaboration opportunities.

What most excites you about RSE?

Being an RSE pushes you to develop both technical and non-technical skills across a diverse range of activities. It is a profession where being able to learn and adapt is key. It can be fascinating to not only work on the forefront of technical and scientific discovery but also to be developing the tools that push this innovation forward.

What are the most common problems encountered by RSEs?

Unlike many organisations in the private sector, projects in academia are almost always novel. This is what makes the role interesting, but it can also be a big challenge to the efficiency of the role. RSEs often need to be able to pick up new skills on each project often without the support of a wider team of developers. This is particularly relevant to embedded RSEs. This lack of skill focus can exacerbate the issue of limited clear career paths available to RSEs by reducing the opportunity to specialise.

What are the most exciting challenges and opportunities that you see in the future of RSE?

We can’t talk about the future now without discussing the likes of ChatGPT, Bard and other generative AI tools. As an RSE we sit in a unique position where we are both starting to make use of these tools but also in some cases helping to develop them. At the very least our understanding of the application of digital tools in research makes us highly valuable in the integration of AI into academia. Like any new technology, many will be wondering what tasks currently fall to the RSE which could be achieved just with AI. But with the development of clear RSE professional skill and career progression pathways we can find ways to ensure the positive future of RSEs.

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