Prof Julie McCann
Professor McCann is Head of the Adaptive Emergent Systmes Engineering (AESE) group within the Department of Computing, Imperial College London. Her work centres on highly decentralised algorithms, protocols and cross-layered solutions to wireless sensor networks – with a particular focus on low-powered sensing devices. Space, Agricultural and Infrastructure Engineering challenges lead to her work on the Internet of Things as well as Cyber-physical systems, where her interests lie in harnessing the various interactions between the cyber and physical to improve performance, resilience and security.
How would you describe your job to a 12-year-old?
"I see my job as a triangle where each side represents a major part of my responsibilities. I got into academia because I was excited by computing and what computers can do. I wanted to invent new computers which is why the first side of my triangle is Research. The second side is Teaching, where not only do I teach students about my subjects I learn from the students too. Finally, the last side is the bit that keeps all that going. I call this Administration, here I make sure that I have enough funding to keep my group going, I fill out all the forms needed to keep teaching going and here I’m lucky enough to be the Director of the Equality & Diversity Committee"
What aspects of your research do you most enjoy?
"I absolutely love research and all that goes with it. I’ve a marvellous team of Research Associates and PhD students and together we brainstorm ideas about the different areas of our subject to see what would be fun and fresh to do next. My area is sensor-centric systems, these are typically tiny, eyeshadow case sized, wireless computer systems that have sensors, and which can communicate over specialist radio technologies. They are the sorts of systems you see hidden in your washing machine or protecting bridges, detecting pollution, or monitoring your health. I’m also interested in the more challenging, but less useful side of our work – pushing their boundaries into dust sizes and trying to understand what it means to build a computer system out of dust!"
Tell us a little about your academic journey so far... how did you get into your current role?
"When I was a pre-teen I got into electronic music from Kraftwerk to Stockhausen (mainly because that was all our local library had) and was fascinated by how they built their instruments. At the same time, I was lucky enough to live not too far from the Armagh Planetarium who let me play with their computers. So, I did a Degree and PhD in Computer Science, and after some postdoc research found myself here in Imperial College where I proceeded to set up my initially small research group. I started out examining special purpose machines that ran unusual operating systems and then got interested in wireless computing systems. Successes in these subjects saw lots of large Tech companies sponsoring my work and promotions to Senior Lecturer/Reader and today I’m Professor of Computer Systems."
Have you always wanted to become a computer scientist?
"Yes, very much so, that or an artist or singer. Still do the latter two as well."
Have you faced any struggles during your career?
"My mid-career seemed slow to me, I felt that people’s perception of what a professor is didn’t match what I was, and this didn’t help me. But I’ve been very lucky to have some senior computer scientists who would quietly encourage me to keep at it. These women continue to support me and others in the UK and are just marvellous."
What impact do you hope your research will have on society?
"Sensor systems are becoming ubiquitous, in phones, in hospitals etc. They can be used by cities to better understand transport, reduce costs and pollution. They can be used in farms to watch over animals’ health or make sure crops are protected and using fewer resources. They can monitor your health and help make cities, farms, environments more sustainable and can help us explore beyond our planet."
What do you think is the next big thing in your field?
"I think we are going to see computers very differently than we do today. No longer will they be this box in the corner or in your hand; they will be part of the fabric around you. They will be composed if different mixes of hardware, software and more - and instead of having, say, a wall and a computer, or a bridge and a computer, you’ll have a smart wall or smart bridge."
What do you wish you’d known when you started your career?
"I wish I’d known to work smart not hard and to learn to say ‘No’!"
What are you most proud of?
"In 2018 I received the MRC Suffrage Science award for Maths and Computer Science. While it was great to get the recognition, it was even better meeting up with, and celebrating, other computer science women."
What is one stereotype or misconception you’d like to dispel about your job and/or industry?
"I hate the words ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ and they are always attributed to computer scientists. It gives the impression that we are somehow not the reasonably well adjusted, multi-talented, normal people we are."
Do you have any tips or recommendations for students who would like to follow in your footsteps?
"If anyone ever says or implies that you can’t do something, ignore them and prove them wrong."
Please share an interesting/surprising fact about yourself...
"I’m ambidextrous. Which means that I’ve terrible handwriting with both hands!"