“With others I’ve helped change the school curriculum in computing and set-up over 200 computers at school hubs across the country to train the teachers to deliver it.”
“In collaboration with research colleagues I’ve developed sophisticated e-learning systems to provide a massive training for those involved in crisis management and planning.”
“I was instrumentally driving forward educational partnerships at Greenwich and as a result have bought higher education to thousands of students all over the world, who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to study.”
Liz Bacon was born on 27th September 1963 at Redhill Hospital, and grew up in Kenley, Surrey near Croydon. Liz was christened Alison Elisabeth Bacon but became disenfranchised with the name Alison because there were many girls in her class at school with whom she shared the moniker. At age five Liz persuaded her mother to call her by her middle name, allowing her to be known as Elisabeth and ultimately, Liz.
Liz describes her childhood as stable. Her mother had a career as a chemist before she got married and her father was an accountant. Her parents met at the Vegetarian Society while serving as treasurer and assistant treasurer of the organisation. Liz says: “So I was brought up vegetarian and that was actually quite challenging at school, because at that time no one knew what a vegetarian was and I was teased relentlessly, not only by the pupils but also the teachers, because of my surname.” Today, Liz is vegan, she adds: “A few years ago I learned of the horrific pain, misery, fear and torture that we put animals through, particularly those who are factory farmed, not just during their short lives but also in the slaughterhouse, and I don’t want any part of that, I love animals and want them to be as happy on this planet as I am.”
Liz attended Hayes Primary School which was not a terribly happy place due to bullying and extremely poor teaching standards. However, things took a more positive turn when Liz moved to Woodcote High School at the age of eleven. Having had her confidence severely undermined in primary school, Liz found that the teachers at Woodcote High School really believed in her and helped her to catch up. At fourteen Liz progressed to Purley High School for Girls where she did ten O-Levels and A-Levels in mathematics and chemistry. She didn’t take a third A level as it was not easy to mix arts and science subjects at school in those days so the options were physics, which she hadn’t studied at O level, or biology which she refused study because she didn’t want animals to be killed for her to dissect during the course. So she stuck with just two. At the time she did not consider university as an option for her because in that era the cast majority of pupils did not progress to higher education.
She was passionate about science, while at a careers fair she decided to examine other opportunities when the careers advisors kept starting the conversation with “When you have your PhD…..”. During the fair Liz wandered into a room where a presentation about computing was being delivered. She was intrigued, and as a result, her parents sent her on a six-week course at Croydon College to find out more about computing and to learn some Basic programming. Having had enough of formal education and a desire to enter the workforce as soon as possible, she decided to take a one year course at Croydon College. After a discussion with a careers advisor who wanted her to study for a degree, they compromised, and she enrolled on a two year HND. Liz applied to five polytechnics, receiving offers from all of them. She chose Thames Polytechnic, which later became University Greenwich, as they seemed the friendliest and gave her a cup of tea at the interview which no other institution had offered. During the first year her best friends on the course were very ambitious and wanted to transfer to the second year of the equivalent degree program on offer at the institution. This was possible only for high achieving students. Not wanting to lose her best friends, and really enjoying higher education, she worked hard, achieved the necessary grades and transferred from the first year HND to the second year of the degree in Computing Science with her friends.
Liz followed this up with a PhD at Thames Polytechnic / University of Greenwich, she explains: “During my final year one of my lecturers, Don Cowell, kept telling her she should do a PhD. She thought no, no, no, she enjoyed higher education very much, but was really ready by then to enter the workforce and start my career. Eventually he persuaded her to go and see the Head of School, Max Bramer, who sort of made you feel like life wasn’t worth living unless you completed a PhD. She was very interested in artificial intelligence at the time, but had only done one related module during the final year of her degree and thought that probably wasn’t enough to get a job in the field, so had never told anybody, but she took up the funded place for the PhD only ever intending to do one year, to gather more knowledge in AI, and then she was going to skip off into industry having expanded her subject area knowledge. Liz really enjoyed the research, she did a really fascinating project with Guy’s Hospital, working on MRI scanners that had only recently arrived at the hospital. The radiologists were experimenting with the various types of scans and how they could best be used to diagnose suspected conditions – usually related to the brain and spine. She found it fascinating and enjoyed the research more and more as it progressed. Her decision to leave early didn’t materialise. In those days she says she was still quite shy and lacked confidence as a result of the trauma during her early school years, to the point she was too shy to even put her hand up and ask a question in class. As her PhD supervisors wanted her to present her research at conferences, she decided to confront her fear of public speaking and took on quite a lot of teaching, and as a result, didn’t finish her PhD on schedule. In order to remain in an academic environment to help her finalise her PhD she applied for and received an academic position at Thames Polytechnic as a lecturer, which allowed her to complete her PhD. At that point she planned start her career in industry but decided she needed to get her programming skills up to scratch since computing technologies had moved on since her degree. She taught herself C, then C++, then Java – never quite feeling she was competent to apply for a position in industry before the next technology came along. In parallel with this she received a series of promotions and enjoyed being an academic so ended up staying at the University of Greenwich for most of her career, even though this was never her intention.
During her sandwich degree in the 1984/85 academic year, Liz completed an industrial placement at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva. One of Liz’s jobs involved writing a beam observation system for the Proton Synchrotron booster rings. She explains: “I had to write a beam observation system that would illustrate the beam position graphically on a screen. In those days, we didn’t have the Internet and current computer languages were inadequate for the job, so I had to learn CERN’s own bespoke programming languages. In order to complete the task I had to write the solution using three very different bespoke languages, running on three different machines.”
During this year at CERN Liz met and worked with Robert Cailliau who wrote one of the languages she used called P+ and went on to jointly developed the worldwide web with Tim Berners-Lee.
Liz describes the experience at CERN as amazing, it provided her with the opportunity to meet and work with people from so many different cultures and countries from across the world. While in Geneva she took advantage of the opportunity to enjoy the varied free scientific lectures which took place on site regularly. As well as inspiring her scientific interests, CERN also inspired Liz’s love of travel, and when not working or learning, Liz took time out to learn French and enhance her skiing by joining the CERN ski club.
She says; “I would encourage any student who gets the opportunity to work at CERN, engaging with people from across the world and experiencing so many diverse perspectives and cultures is just a truly amazing and unique experience. What I learned from this is hard to match and not something you can get from reading a book.”
University of Greenwich
Liz only planned to spend one year doing her PhD at Greenwich, hoping to learn enough about artificial intelligence to allow her pursue a role in industry. But she enjoyed her PhD research, stayed on as a lecturer earned a series of early promotions and her career as an academic continued, even though this was not a career she had ever planned.
While a lecturer at the University, an informal system of teaching rotation in the Software Engineering department at University Greenwich, allowed her to teach a wide range of topics including systems analysis, many programming languages including COBOL, Fortran, Assembler, Basic and Java, computer games development, distributed systems, human computer interaction, graphics, networking, computer theory, and artificial intelligence. Ultimately her main focus was on expert systems and programming.
While at Greenwich, Liz moved into progressively senior roles, climbing through the ranks from lecturer, senior lecturer, and principal lecturer, to senior academic. She was Head / Dean of the School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences for eleven years and it was during this time that she became a Professor of Software Engineering. Her final promotion at the university was to Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor in 2013.
As well as maintaining her role at Greenwich, Liz has worked on research projects involving partners from across the world. She says: “After her PhD, although still research active, her focus was more on teaching and management. However as part of her career plan, once I became a Head of School, I set herself the goal of becoming a professor. It was at that point I realised how much I enjoyed the research, especially working with people from all over the world, solving problems and investigating new challenges. It felt very different to doing a PhD where she had enjoyed the research but not the compulsory thesis writing.
For the past decade, the main focus of Liz’ research has been in immersive learning systems. This has resulted from an EU Framework 7 project that ran between 2010 and 2012. The focus of the research was to develop a realistic, emotionally engaging training environment for multi-agency strategic level commanders working together to solve a major crisis such as 9/11.
Liz explains: “Most crisis training uses either tabletop exercises or simulations. Tabletop exercises tend not to be emotionally engaging and simulations are limited in the outcomes they can achieve, time and expense. The aim of our research was find a middle ground; an immersive system that would present a real-life scenario in which the crisis team had to make decisions, often life and death ones, and reap the consequences of those decisions. However, a primary focus was to make people feel the stress of a real crisis as far as possible, through immersion and a variety of mechanisms such as time constraints. It was important to be able to manipulate the scenario on-the-fly during a training session because when people are under pressure, they will make different decisions to those made in a unpressured environment.”
The system was called Pandora and has been developed further in a second European Framework 7 project, which focuses on training the public how to behave in the event of a crisis.
Pandora has also been used in two other European Horizon 2020 projects. The first involves a knowledge exchange project between Europe and Australia in the area of wildfire modelling, fire spread, fire suppression, simulation and training. The project involves working with fire fighters and the public in Europe and Australia focusing on wild / bush fires that are prevalent in those areas.
The second involves the development of an innovative socio-technical platform to foster effective collaboration between citizens and law-enforcement agencies across Europe.
As well as inspiring further projects the Pandora System, now being developed as Pandora+, and is in the process of being commercialised for its widespread use and application to domains beyond crisis management. As Liz explains: “The system isn’t bespoke to crisis management. As long as you have an event-based scenario that you want one or more people to react to, and make decisions as the scenario unfolds, Pandora+ can support that training, especially if the focus is to manage the emotions and stress of people involved in the training”
Over the last ten years, Liz estimates that she has managed to bring in excess of £1.5million pounds of research funding to Greenwich. However, uncertainty around Brexit is causing concern for many researchers who need to bring interdisciplinary teams together from across Europe and the world in order to solve complex research questions. She explains: “Brexit has already impacted the UK, bidding for funding is very competitive and involving UK partners in a bid has already been seen as a risk by some of our European colleagues. As a result consortiums have looked for the expertise they seek from outside of the UK. Funding has already dropped significantly since the Brexit vote and unless we remain a full member of the EU research programmes the UK research community will be substantially damaged.”
Abertay University - Dundee
In September 2018 Liz began a new role as Vice-Principal and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Abertay University in Dundee. She says: “One of the main reasons I was attracted to this position was that normally, DVC positions are focussed either in research or teaching, and I’m passionate about both, and her new role combines them into a single portfolio. I was also attracted by Abertay’s outstanding strengths, particularly in Computer Games which is ranked top in Europe and in the top twenty worldwide.”
Liz says that one of the biggest influences on her life, and the way she has chosen to live and develop her career, has been the way in which women have been, and still are, portrayed in society, and were frequently belittled in conversation during her childhood. She explains: “I think a big factor in her life choices was how women were perceived in society when I was growing up. It felt like I was expected to have a job until I got married and had children, but not to have a career. That was the society norm at the time. However, I felt that wanted to prove herself but in those early years, I just accepted that was the way things were.”
Liz cites the example of one of her physics teachers who told her class that “there was no point in teaching women physics because they just go off and have babies”. Sadly, instead of rebelling against this, Liz, and most of the other women in her class, took this to heart and didn’t initially opt to study O level physics. This was something she later regretted because she enjoyed the subject so much and ultimately studied the subject while completing her A levels. She adds: “When I was at school, girls and boys were split for some subjects – there was no choice – girls did needlework and home economics, and the boys did metalwork and woodwork. I would love to have done metalwork and woodwork, but I wasn’t allowed to.”
Liz wanted to achieve something where she felt people would respect her but going to university wasn’t the norm at her school. She had always believed she wasn’t very bright but with hindsight realised it was due to her poor primary school education. Many of her friends left school at 16, including her two best friends at the time. However, she says: “I didn’t leave school at 16 because the options available seemed to be training to become a secretary or to work at a local bank. Neither of these appealed to me so I stayed on to complete her A levels. I had no idea what I wanted to do, however, her desire to be financially independent and how I was perceived by society as a women, was definitely a significant factor in her choice of path”.
Liz says her biggest challenge is “just juggling everything”. She is very busy and works long hours – a better work-life balance is something she is trying improve however juggling research, leadership activities, PhD student supervision, enterprise activities, external committee work, overseas travel, publishing etc. means she is still fully engaged, but she does love her work even though it is all consuming more of her time than it should.
Throughout her career, Liz has undertaken many voluntary roles for a variety of reasons; the challenge, the interest, the desire to help and learn from new experiences. She was Chair of the Council of Heads and Professors of Computing, the inaugural Chair of British Computer Society Academy Computing in 2009. In 2014 she was elected as president of the British Computer Society. Currently, Liz is President of the European Quality Assurance Network for Informatics Education (EQANIE) as well as being a Trustee and a member of the board of directors of Bletchley Park Trust.
BCS - Academy & Presidency
BCS Academy of Computing
The BCS Academy of Computing was established in 2009, a key aim being to “establish a cohesive community inclusive of scholars, teachers, researchers and professionals with a shared commitment to the advancement of computing”. However, following discussions around the nature of computer science education in schools, which had been an issue for many years, the Academy’s initial focus rapidly became a campaign to change the ICT curriculum in schools. This involved bringing industry, academia and professional bodies together to campaign for change. Liz was initially involved in this campaign while chair of the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing, and continued when she became the inaugural chair of the Academy. She says: “The big focus at that time was trying to get the curriculum changed in schools because the ICT curriculum was uninspiring to most school pupils, the focus of the curriculum being on how to use a computer, not computer science. Since many school pupils were already very competent users, they found the curriculum tedious or boring. The campaigners felt that with the increasing impact of computing technology in society, it was important to inspire the next generation to study computer science since as there already existed significant skills shortages in the discipline. Additionally the group wanted to inspire the next generation to understand the digital world that they were going to live in so they could make informed decisions about it and how they should engage with it.”
Following the campaign, a new computer science national curriculum was introduced in 2014 and the BCS Academy of Computing was awarded government funding to train teachers how to deliver the new curriculum. It established over 200 support hubs across the UK to support teachers, bringing schools into closer contact with local universities and industry. Liz says: “Due to limited funding, a ‘train the trainer’ approach was taken. The Academy trained master teachers who then trained other teachers in their local area.” Liz, together with local master teacher Chris Coetzee, set up and ran one a local hub in north west Kent, England.
Liz stood for BCS President following her involvement in establishing the BCS Academy of Computing, she says this was not something she had previously considered, but being passionate about her profession, she was keen to offer her knowledge, skills and networks to help move the discipline and the profession forward. Liz championed two themes during her year as President; technology enhanced learning, and women in computing.
She says: “Women remain under-represented in the IT industry at around fourteen to eighteen per cent, depending on the research you read. Despite a vast number of activities across the country to encourage more women to consider IT careers, the number of women in industry is still in a slow decline. If you look at the more technical areas of computing such as coding or security, you will find the percentage of women even lower, at around ten per cent. Given the impact of technology in society industry needs diverse input, so the lack of women in the sector is a real tragedy. Sadly this situation is not unique to the UK.”
Liz has been involved in encouraging more women to enter the IT industry for the past 30 years however, no matter how many initiatives there are, the decline continues which she finds very depressing. Many developed countries have similar challenges, however not all countries are the same, and those where there is a better gender balance also tend to have more accepting societal and cultural norms about women and thus their role IT. This has influenced Liz’s belief that a major hurdle to be overcome is societal stereotyping which starts from birth.
Liz says of the lack of women in computing: “I’ve come to the conclusion this is a really difficult problem to solve. There are many reasons why women avoid IT; it’s not seen as cool, it has a nerdy image, the media doesn’t portray it an encouraging light for women, lack of understanding about the diverse careers on offer and more. Another challenge facing the UK is the lack of qualified teachers in primary and secondary schools. There are many fantastic teachers out there doing a brilliant job, but there is still a massive shortage resulting in computing either not being taught at school, or taught by teachers who are trying their best, but lack an in-depth understanding of the subject. IT education needs a lot more investment to up-skill or retrain existing teachers and to attract new teachers to the profession who can inspire the next generation of IT professionals.”
During her year as BCS President, Liz launched STELLAR, a networking group for senior women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The focus of the group is to encourage more women into STEM professions. They meet four times a year in London and undertake a number of activities such as sharing knowledge, networking, offering mentoring and speakers for events supporting STEM diversity.
Bletchley Park Trust
Liz became a Trustee and Director of Bletchley Park Trust, the home of British code breaking, in 2016. The Trust has a ten-year master plan for restoration and uses funds from donors as well bidding for funds to be able to achieve its aims. Trustees work with the Executive Team to ensure Bletchley Park remains a world-class museum and heritage attraction in addition to providing an extensive education programme both on-site and through an outreach programme. Liz explains: “I have relevant experience to bring, as a trustee from her role at BCS and from having worked in teaching including technology enhanced learning, for many years. Her goal is bring a breadth of skills and knowledge, coupled with and innovative ideas, to the Bletchley Park team to help it flourish in the 21st century.”
Challenges & Opportunities for the IT Industry
Liz’s perceives that some of IT’s biggest challenges lies not in the technology itself, but in the impact that it will have on society. She says: “Clearly artificial intelligence, big data, the Internet of Things, cloud computing etc. already exist. These technologies are predicted to drive an explosive growth our industry. I think it’s a hugely exciting time to be in IT, but the one thing that really worries me is the tendency for the public to embrace new and exciting technologies without fully comprehending the security and the privacy issues which can come with them. We’re in a constant game of cat and mouse with those who seek to deceive, and I am concerned that the increased use of these technologies will provide even greater opportunities for IT to be used to deceive vulnerable groups. It is vital that we do much more to educate the public on these issues, as well as the benefits of new technology so they can make appropriate decisions.”
“Be flexible, care about the people you work with, at all levels, don’t stop learning because change is the one constant at work you will have. Learn to work with robots. They will soon become your co-workers, if not your boss!”
Life Outside of IT
As a child Liz learned to play the piano, violin, guitar and several types of recorders, as well as being keen on sports, especially gymnastics. She was a member of the Croydon Gymnastics Club from the age of eleven to eighteen. Her time at the club was not limited to performance as she helped teach gymnastics to younger gymnasts for several years. As an adult, she is passionate about horse riding, skiing, scuba diving, travel, her three cats and her charming husband Stuart Kabler.