Dr Gail Murphy, Vice-President, Research and Innovation at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is an accomplished computer science professor and co-founder and board member of one of UBC’s most successful spin-off companies, Tasktop Technologies Incorporated. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and is a recognized leader in software engineering research.
Prior to her appointment, Dr Murphy served as the Associate Vice-President, Research pro tem at UBC. She was involved in the strategy and operations of the Research Excellence Cluster initiative; strengthened UBC’s involvement with Microsoft; helped found the Cascadia Urban Analytics Consortium (a joint initiative with the University of Washington); and improved research infrastructure in the areas of Advanced Research Computing and Sequencing and Bioinformatics.
I spoke to Dr Murphy as she neared four years in her role as Vice President of Research and Innovation at UBC. The university is at the forefront of a great deal of the most cutting-edge research and innovation in the region, and I was curious to find out what the day to day looks like and what she enjoys most about it.
“The thing I love most about my job is being able to create an environment in which our researchers at UBC can accelerate the kinds of discoveries that they make whether they are technology based, or whether they have gained new insights into archives that they've analysed. I am also motivated to provide opportunities for them to take that forward into socio-economic impact, be it through commercialization in the form of technology licensing or company creation, through knowledge exchange and translation into the community that way, or through developing partnerships between researchers, non-profits, government, and private companies. The part I love about the day-to-day is that every day is different. No two days are alike.”
Dr Murphy has been a key figure in initiatives such as the Cascadia Urban Analytics Consortium, and the hugely successful Tasktop. With such a wide range and huge impact in the region, I was excited to learn more about her career, and how some of her past experiences have informed the work she is doing with Innovation UBC.
“I've spent a lot of my career in Cascadia. After graduating with a Bachelor's in Computer Science I worked as a software developer for five years in Vancouver, before going to the University of Washington to do my PhD. I came back to British Columbia for an academic role at UBC, so I was moving back and forth in the corridor! Many of the initiatives we started built on the energy that's in this region. For instance, the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative was galvanized by a donation that Microsoft made to the University of Washington (UW) and UBC, after the first Cascadia Corridor Conference. The universities put their collective heads together and realized there were a lot of synergies in applying data science to problems within the region that could benefit from data insights. A component of the consortium fosters research projects on both sides of the border. For instance, both BC and WA have very similar problems in terms of having urban areas that are spread out but have taken some different approaches to transportation policy. We had groups of students look at those problems on each side of the border and compare their results to understand how policy implications play out.
At UBC, we also benefited from learning from the UW program called Data Science for Social Good. They helped us create a version of the program here in Vancouver at UBC, which we worked on collaboratively with Microsoft and various municipalities like Surrey. This allowed students from a diverse background - some with analytical data backgrounds already, and some with backgrounds in economics, to come together on projects over the summer. They took problems that existed in the municipalities and looked at the data the municipalities had to provide dashboards and various visualizations; we had a lot of really great interactions that way.
Throughout my career, I've always been interested in how we take results from our research settings and move them into generating impact. I’ve had a chance to personally experience such movement when Mik Kersten, a graduate student in my group, Rob Elves, a research scientist my group and I co-founded Tasktop Technologies in 2007, just a few days after Mik finished his PhD. During his dissertation work, Mik looked at ways to improve support for developers as they work with tasks on large development systems. He created an approach called Mylyn that builds a degree of interest about the code that you browse as part of a task and enables an easier way of saving that context of a task and resumption of a task when you restart, since developers work on many tasks per day. It became a very popular open-source project and we developed a business approach that helped to leverage that open source project into support for larger companies and grew it over the years into being a platform that can enable understanding the flow of work in the value stream and software development. It's been great to see the company build and evolve and be able to help change the world.”
It is immediately apparent on speaking to Dr Murphy that software engineering research is a real passion of hers. She had remained in a hands-on role as Chief Scientist at Tasktop until her position as Vice President of Research made it impossible to continue day-to-day involvement. Her responsibilities at UBC include heading up Innovation UBC, and I asked her what the overarching aims of the department are, and what impact she has seen it have on the technology industry in the region so far.
“When I took on this role the name had just been changed to Vice President Research and Innovation. It has allowed us to take some ideas we had been percolating at UBC, and form Innovation UBC. We have focused on supporting four different pathways, one of which we have done for over 30 years, which is commercialization and sponsored research. This basically involves patenting, licensing, and enabling existing discoveries to move into commercial use. We have continued to build up our entrepreneurship@ UBC program, which enables staff students and faculty to take their discoveries out through their own companies and learn about how to build successful ventures. We started Innovation Partnerships as a third pathway, which aims to build more and higher quality, multi-faceted partnerships between academic researchers and not for profit, government, or corporate partners. Finally, the knowledge exchange pathway, which looks more at the longer-term bidirectional areas of changing policy and practice, or informing key cultural and social issues and understanding, and requires different kinds of approaches.”
The university has a great relationship with many companies in the Cascadia Corridor - helping to nurture talent and collaborating on a wide variety of research and innovation projects. I was curious to understand from Dr Murphy’s perspective as a leader in the educational space, whether she views their interactions with the private sector as a push or a pull relationship, and whether UBC creates data from which businesses look to leverage, or if they are approached to explore specific areas with a view to potential commercialization.
“We see lots of different approaches being used. Sometimes we have a discovery at UBC that finds its way out into use, for example panoramic stitching software for photos which you can find on many phones. It's an invention that makes its way out through licensing. On the other hand, you have cases where the only way that you can make progress or do the research is in close partnership with a partner. Perhaps you're looking at composite materials of aircraft wings, that's typically a much closer bidirectional partnership, where the problem is coming from the partner and the solutions are coming through collaboration with academics. As much as possible, we try to strive towards bidirectional long-term partnerships, because that ends up being usually most impactful for the research but also the most fun for both sides to engage in.”
UBC partnered with Rogers to build Canada's first 5G Network which, in April 2021, saw Canada's first 5G-enabled drone flight over the university campus thanks to Vancouver-Island based InDro Robotics. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential real-world impacts of 5G. I asked Murphy what developments she sees coming in near the future at the university and in the wider community in the Cascadia corridor.
“5G really changes the equation of how devices can interact. A drone flight is a good example where you need very close coverage and the ability to transition and track and control the drone over a longer distance. With 5G we’re going to see a rise of the Internet of Things and an increased ability to connect our world. We have a number of projects at UBC through our partnership with Rogers that are looking at using 5G in new and different ways, ranging from how we can use the network to better detect earthquakes as they're happening to ones that are more oriented at sustainable operations and smarter transportation. One project looks at using 5G and IoT devices to track the management and performance of natural assets, such as trees, forests, and parks in urban areas. We all know that natural assets are a strong positive around addressing climate change, health and well-being, and maintaining biodiversity. As we are finding this summer, making sure we increase our natural supports has become so much more important. “
Murphy’s career has been closely tied to the University and the technology industry, and while she has enjoyed success and acclaim within the community it has not always been straightforward. Challenges and obstacles can often be a difficult thing to talk about, but she approaches the topic with a positive outlook, describing how ‘there were a lot of opportunities’ in her career path.
“I had amazing mentors that allowed barriers to not be seen as barriers and helped in talking through the way that you would move beyond them. Even in the early days of Tasktop, my co-founder and I had never really had that kind of business experience. We found the business community in Vancouver to be fantastic at providing support and advice for us to keep moving forward and through each of the barriers. I think it's all in a mind-set to not see them as barriers as much as problems to solve, and who can help you solve that problem. Having a really good network of folks that you feel comfortable calling on for advice.”
Speaking to Murphy, as we touch on challenges and new technologies, there is a common theme running throughout - to spot the learning opportunity and to recognise the potential positive outcome in a situation. It is an inspiring perspective and I was curious to learn how she applied her thought process and past experiences in her role as a leader.
“It's really important to listen and to understand the community that you're trying to serve and then to do a lot of work amplifying the voices that you hear around the table, making sure that the voices that are coming in are representative of diverse perspectives. We know that when we involve a diverse set of people in something that we get better results. Research shows that having a diverse set of people around a board table leads to better results. We have to make sure that we're understanding the community that we're trying to serve, that we're co developing the strategies and the goals that we have for that community and ensuring that everyone can contribute to making that become reality so that they know that they had a part in it and want to be part of the community.”
As always at Cascadia Report, we ask for three key takeaways, or in this case it might be three key learning points!
1. To think about the current priorities and goals that I have, that my organization has, and try to ensure that I'm putting focus on those, amongst all the other things that one could be doing.
2. Remember how important friends and family are. Certainly, as we've been moving through the last year or so, the need to remember what's really important.
3. We can all do so much more together if we're working together on something. It isn't about individual achievement. It's about helping groups to achieve what they can. That is what is going to lead us to leaving behind maybe a better world than we came into, because we can't do it alone.
And finally, a new segment for the Cascadia Report - the Elevator Pitch, where I ask our guests what new developments they have on the horizon, and what they are excited about for the coming year.
“There's so much. I have so many elevator pitches on different topics! There's huge value in the region. There are so many shared values and I think we can do a lot by working together and doing it in a way that solves our regional issues, but also solves the problems of the world. Urban wildfires, for instance, which is one project we have been working on. There are so many examples where we have a common problem between what happens in Washington state, in Oregon and in BC. We have more to gain by working together on these issues, and then sharing our results with the world because other places share those problems, too.”
You can more about Dr Gail Murphy and Innovation UBC here: https://innovation.ubc.ca/