Q&A with Dame Wendy Hall

We speak to the professor of computer science and dean of the Faculty of Physical Science and Engineering at the University of Southampton

February 20, 2014

Source: Russell Sach

Dame Wendy Hall is professor of computer science and dean of the Faculty of Physical Science and Engineering at the University of Southampton. She is known for being one of the first computer scientists to undertake research in multimedia, hypermedia and the semantic web and was named among the 100 leading practising scientists in the UK by the Science Council.

Where and when were you born?
In London on 25 October 1952.

How has this shaped you?
I grew up in London in the 1960s. What else is there to say?

You have been made a dame and were recently named as one of the top 100 scientists in the land. Do gongs matter?
Yes. It’s great to have recognition for the work that you have done.

In light of that, how did you feel when you were named in the top 100 practising scientists?
It’s even better to get that recognition from your peers. I pinch myself every time I see my name in a list like this. I can’t believe it is me they are talking about.

You have a quote on your personal web page: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Why?
Teams need strong leadership to give them a sense of common purpose and goals to strive for. Leaders need to have a vision. Without it the team cannot achieve its full potential, as they won’t all be pulling together.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Not one big one, but several small ones. Sometimes you don’t realise the implications of the work you are doing until years later. I often find myself looking at a new product or technology and thinking we prototyped something like that in the lab 20 years ago. I find that very fulfilling.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Have the courage of your convictions, which I think I have done, and be patient. Good work will out.

When did you first feel that you had broken through a glass ceiling, as a woman in a male-dominated field?
When I was appointed as the first female professor of engineering at Southampton in 1994. But I subsequently found that there were many layers of glass ceilings. Having broken through most of them, there are still barriers to break.

What is to be done about the under-representation of women in science and in senior academic and management positions in higher education?
Constant vigilance. It is an issue for all of us and we make the most headway when there are male champions with whom we can make common cause.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I look for inspiration to strong leaders, particularly women who have broken through the barriers created by a male-dominated society. In my world, it would be Dame Steve Shirley, the businesswoman and philanthropist.

What has changed most in higher education in the past 10 years?
The increasing amount of bureaucracy and league tables. The research excellence framework must cost more to administer than can be justified by the impact it has.

Have the National Security Agency revelations put the future of the internet in jeopardy, as some have suggested?
Yes.

What was special about Southampton that enabled you and your colleagues to turn it into a powerhouse in computer science and the development of the World Wide Web?
The people – the scientists and engineers as well as the university leaders who had the vision to support me and enable my group and the wider discipline to grow. Southampton has always encouraged interdisciplinary work. I couldn’t have flourished at an institution that kept everything in disciplinary silos.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a doctor but my headmistress told me that medicine wasn’t a career for women and encouraged me to focus on mathematics.

Tell us about a book, show, film or play that you love.
My favourite book is Wuthering Heights, my favourite film Witness.

What do you do for fun?
Shopping.

Who from history would you most like to meet?
Queen Elizabeth I.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
Invaluable. Education is a precious thing. We take it for granted but to many people it is a luxury that would improve their lives incalculably if they could get access.

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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