Megan Meredith-Lobay: Digitizing the humanities

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When Megan Meredith-Lobay was doing her PhD, she could have used some of the advanced research computing services she now offers through her day job. If only she’d known what the term meant.

“Geographic information systems are pretty heavy to use and they can kill a desktop pretty quickly,” the PhD in archaeology said. “I had a terrible time using a desktop to do my research during my PhD. It was dreadful. I could have benefitted from a bit of high-performance computing, but I didn’t know what that was at the time.”

Today, she’s a bit of a national cheerleader for advanced-research computing (ARC). Based at the University of British Columbia, she is an ARC analyst for the digital humanities and social sciences. That long title means she helps researchers use advanced research computing tools to simplify or significantly expand their research capabilities and efficacy.

“I’ve been tasked with increasing the capacity for the university to support the digital humanities and social sciences and increase the impact of the scholarship that’s already happening here,” she said. “To that end, I’m doing a lot of outreach, a lot of community-building, a lot of consulting with researchers who are wondering how to get started doing a digital project in the humanities and social sciences and who need a little bit of help on where to go to find programming support.”

As part of the WestGrid system, a small portion of her salary is paid by Compute Canada and as such, part of her mandate is to spread the word to humanities and social science researchers about the Compute Canada resources and computing infrastructure that are available to them. She’s also developing her role as a point person to bring together all the work being done in digital humanities and social sciences.

“There’s a lot going on, but it’s quite fragmented,” she said. In addition, she serves on Compute Canada’s national digital humanities and social sciences team, which works collaboratively to spread the word across the country.

“I’ve been working in this field for seven to eight years in various locations,” she said. “I really enjoy it because I still manage to keep doing a bit of research and I get to be involved with so many more types of research than if I’d stuck with my small niche of archeology.”

It was her computing background in archaeology, with GIS systems, landscapes and spatial work, that led her to a career in the digital humanities. As she puts it: “I didn’t chose this career, it chose me. An opportunity presented itself in which I could leverage skills I’d developed in graduate school to great effect. I was in the right place at the right time in Alberta. They were looking for someone to manage their research computing department in the faculty of arts in 2008. I took over a research computing department and learned what digital humanities was. Prior to that, I’d never heard the term in my life. My first day, I had to ask what a wiki was. I was painfully underqualified, but I’ve since learned a lot — and I learned that I actually knew more than I thought I did.”

Today, she helps researchers from across the humanities. She’s currently helping one research who has archives of digitized material from the Himalayas — census records, journal articles and research material — to get that data set up digitally.

She’s helping another reseacher, this one in archaeology, more effectively  use a large database of radio-carbon dates from all over the world.

“We were helping a researcher a few weeks ago who has a large dataset from the B.C. lottery corporation,” she said. “He’s looking at online gambling behaviour.”

Challenges in her career have included learning how different disciplines conduct research and learning what the trends are in fields as disparate as digital musicology and behavioural intervention. The research spans many domains and it requires agility to support all of the researchers.

Her advice to other women interested in ARC is to look at their skills as broadly as possible when trying to figure out what they want in life.

On that topic, she’s content with her job, through which her mission is to “shorten the onramp for researchers wanting to use Compute Canada resources.”

Everyone loves the ownCloud service, she said, because it allows them to access so much stable and safe storage. “That’s a great way for researchers to get on Compute Canada and get used to using it.”

Meredith-Lobay admits that with humanities, what counts as advanced research computing is a little different than what counts for an astronomer whose retrieving petabytes of data off a microscope, but the possibilities are still vast and the research is just as critical.

 

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