Staff profile: Associate Professor Neil Hurley, Head of School
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Staff profile: Associate Professor Neil Hurley, Head of School
Tell us a bit about your career to date
I completed an MSc in Mathematics in UCD at the end of the eighties and was recruited into Hitachi Dublin Laboratory (HDL) for my first job. This was a research and development laboratory based on the Trinity College Dublin campus, focused on Artificial Intelligence. I registered to the PhD programme with the Department of Computer Science in TCD and was proud to be awarded a degree in 1995, for the work that I did with HDL on knowledge-based simulation for engineering problems. I stayed with HDL for a further 5 years, becoming firstly a project leader and finally the laboratory manager. In these latter years, we moved into High Performance Computing and, in 1997, installed the first high performance parallel computer on the Trinity campus, a 16-node SR2201, a small version of Hitachi’s supercomputer which led the TOP500 list of world’s fastest computers for a short while around this time. In these years, I gained a lot of experience in juggling the needs and constraints of industry with desire to publish novel research results and develop my research career profile.
In 1999 I joined the School of Computer Science, UCD, as an academic staff member and, along with my colleague, Guenole Silvestre, established the Information Hiding Laboratory. For the next 9 years, we worked on multimedia security and robustness of information systems. Since that time, I have worked with the SFI funded Clique Cluster, focusing on analysis and inference over network data and the Insight Centre for Data Analytics, focussed on machine learning with applications in recommender systems, e-commerce, etc.
Which areas of computer science are you most actively involved in researching?
Since my PhD studies, I have always had an interest in the boundaries between computer science and mathematical modelling. This interest led me, along with my colleague Ted Cox in the School of Mathematics, to establish an MSc in Computational Science in 2003. More recently, with funding from the National Forum in Teaching and Learning, Ted and I along with Maria Meehan and colleagues across science, have developed a programme aimed at introducing computation to the wider science disciplines. Generally, I enjoy teaching at all levels and like to bring my own personality, perspective and experience into whatever subject I teach.
On the research side, I have generally maintained a group of around 5 PhD students, with post-doctoral support for most of my career in UCD, working on topics from digital watermarking to hierarchical clustering. Since I joined UCD 23 years ago I have graduated just over 20 PhD students.
How do you feel about taking on the role of Head of school?
Towards the end of my career in HDL, having just turned 30 years of age, I was given the role of Manager of the laboratory, the first major administrative role that I ever undertook. At the time, the lab had around 25 staff, which was pretty daunting. Twenty-three years later, I am Head of a school with 59 academic staff members, a very large support and research staff, about 1000 undergraduate students and a graduate school of around 180 research students and 700 graduate taught students. The school involves so many diverse strands of activity. It has been suggested to me that the role is something akin to being CEO of an SME. So, this is very daunting. Although being part of the school for over 20 years, I have directly contributed to only a small part of its activities. The Head of School role now gives me the opportunity to support the larger activities of the school. In my first couple of months, I feel I am still on a steep learning curve, just to understand all the moving parts.
We are at a critical juncture in the school. The strength of the technology industry is such that our school is able to attract a large national and international student cohort. As such the school’s taught programmes have grown strongly in the last number of years. The school’s international reputation rests on our ability to do leading-edge research and it is imperative that academic staff have the space to develop and enhance their research profiles. Balancing the requirements of research and teaching is a challenge and an opportunity for the next phase in the growth of the school. Increasing diversity in the school is an important priority which will inform how we grow in the future.
What do you see as the strengths of the UCD school of computer science?
We are very proud of the programmes that we have developed in the school of computer science. Our BSc programme focuses on delivering the foundational knowledge that underlies computation, while introducing students to modern computer languages and technologies. Our programme has a strong practical component, with substantial individual and group projects at every stage and an internship in stage 3. Graduates have little difficulty in obtaining jobs in the industry but are also well equipped to go on to advanced degrees and/or research. We are a highly active research school, with research projects funded through national agencies such as SFI and EI or European projects.
What would you like to achieve during your term as head of school?
The main goal over the next couple of years is to develop a plan that can manage the growth of the school, maintaining our quality teaching and learning experience, while student numbers grow; growing the number of academic staff to support increased student body, while ensuring that students are educated in a research active environment, where their teachers are working at the cutting edge of computer science research.
What advice would you give to someone considering studying computer science at university?
Computer science is for the intellectually curious, who are interested in how things work and interested in building new things. It can be challenging but overcoming the challenges can be very rewarding. Our school has a diverse student cohort, with lots of opportunity to make lifelong friendships.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in academia?
Academia is a hugely rewarding career. It involves many aspects, from teaching to research to administration and gives a creative person the opportunity to explore avenues and ideas that interest them. The road to an academic career is not always easy. You need to work hard at your research, not only in doing the research itself, but in communicating to your peers and the wider community. People with an ambition in this direction are often aware of the hard technical skills that they must acquire, but less aware of the importance of the softer skills - networking, finding the research community that best fits your research, learning to present it in a way that highlights its contribution and impact. The typical path to an academic job can require years of post-doctoral research work, which is not often well-paid.
What are the challenges facing universities over the next 10 years?
The way that people learn has changed and is changing rapidly in these years. The skills required of the learner have also changed. Nowadays it is as much about wading through a vast sea of information to find those nuggets of information that are critical to your learning, as about learning from a small set of prescribed texts. In the pandemic years, we rapidly developed ways to deliver teaching material online, but the collective experience of learning together was lost. Universities need to consider their role in society as a whole and continue to critically analyse how they deliver the learning experience, in order to maintain their relevance in today’s society.
Tell us a bit about your life outside UCD
I am originally from Sligo, but I live in Bettystown, Co. Meath, with my partner and four children, who age between 16 and 22. Like many parents, I have worked part-time as a taxi-man for my children over the last number of years, bringing them hither and thither to their various activities. When not on the road, I enjoy cycling, reading, theatre and cinema.