Oliver Henrich    University of Edinburgh (EPCC)

I graduated from Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuernberg, Germany with a Diploma in Physics in 2001 and continued my doctoral studies at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Goettingen and at the University of Konstanz, where I was awarded a PhD in Theoretical Physics in 2007. This was followed by an appointment as Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Soft Matter Group at the University of Edinburgh and by another appointment at the Centre for Computational Science, University College London.   Currently, I work at the School of Physics and Astronomy and the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre at the University of Edinburgh. Since August 2016 I am EPSRC Research Software Engineering Fellow and member of the UKRSE Leader Network. My job role is a combination of research software engineering and scientific research within the context of EPCC’s core research areas, such as computational simulation of soft condensed matter and complex fluids through HPC.

Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you became a Research Software Engineer?

I have a background in soft condensed matter physics, a relatively new and interdisciplinary field of science at the interface of physics, chemistry and biology. Soft matter is squidgy stuff that you know from your everyday lives: viscous liquids, polymers, foams, gels, granular materials, liquid crystals, but also biological materials. The behaviour of soft matter is difficult to predict, which is why computer simulations are a major tool of the trade. Over several postdoctoral appointments and a previous fellowship I evolved from an application scientist to a research software engineer (RSE). This is also why I still have a small personal research agenda, contrary to many other RSEs.  My current research interests include liquid crystals, active matter, new soft composite and functional materials, electrokinetic phenomena as well as the lattice-Boltzmann methodology and algorithm development for heterogeneous computing architectures. I have also an interest in coarse-grained modelling of DNA and RNA and am author of the LAMMPS oxDNA USER-package.

What do you think is the role of a Research Software Engineer? Is it different from a ‘normal’ researcher?

I think the roles of RSEs and researchers are very different. Researchers apply software as application scientists and publish their results in scientific publications. Developing new software is almost always just a means to an end of getting the next publication out. With the focus on science traditional researchers often lack the programming skills and rigorousness for developing sustainable, extendible and failure-proof software solutions. RSEs combine in-depth knowledge of IT technology with a scientific background. This skill set is also quite distinct from that of a Postdoctoral Research Associate. The role of RSEs is more akin to those of managers of experimental labs. Research software engineers are the caretakers of ‘virtual laboratories’, and in that sense do complementary and important infrastructural work for traditional researchers.