“Passion for your area is crucial – you must love what you do”
Professor Ann Nicholson is the Deputy Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Information Technology. After completing her BSc (Hons) and MSc in Computer Science at the University of Melbourne, in 1988 Prof Nicholson was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where she did her doctorate in the Robotics Research Group. After working for 2 years in the United States as a post-doctoral research fellow at Brown University, she returned to Australia to take up a lecturing position at Monash in 1994.
Prof Nicholson specialises in the broad area of Artificial Intelligence, a sub-discipline of computer science. She is a leading international researcher in the specialised area of Bayesian networks, now the dominant technology for probabilistic causal modelling in intelligent systems. She is an expert in dynamic Bayesian networks, planning under uncertainty, user modelling, Bayesian inference methods, and knowledge engineering with Bayesian networks. She has a strong applied focus to her work, both in her research and through her consulting company, developing models and tools for intelligent decision support in many application domains, such as fog forecasting, managing and monitoring threatened species, clinical medical diagnosis and treatment, and bushfire risk assessment.
Prof Nicholson has published than 100 refereed papers, with more than 5,100 citations, including co-authoring a leading textbook in the area, Bayesian Artificial Intelligence, has an h-index of 28 and a g-index of 53. Recognition of her work includes attracting more than $7million in research funding, and being General Chair of the major conference in her field, the 30th International Conference on Uncertainty in Artificial Intelligence in 2014.
On a more personal note, Prof Nicholson has a partner and two teenage children, and has the misfortune to be a lifelong Melbourne footy fan.
What do you think is the most important character trait in a successful scientist?
Very hard to choose one trait! Passion for your area is crucial – you must love what you do. You also need intellectual rigor, curiosity and perseverance.
What are you most proud of in your science career?
The fact that Bayesian networks, the main focus of my research since I did my doctorate, is now being used in the real world for decision support and risk assessment, in all sorts of application areas.
I’ve always loved reading, music (played both clarinet and piano at school, and most recently started learning the saxophone) and I am a passionate AFL footy fan – I barrack for Melbourne. For much of my life, I spent a lot of time playing and coaching sport. I started playing cricket in the back yard with my brother, and joined a women’s team (no schoolgirls cricket in those days) when I was 12. Apart from a few breaks while living the US, and having babies, I played until I was in my early 40s, including captaining Oxford against Cambridge in the Varsity match, and playing County cricket while I was living in the UK. I also started playing women’s rugby union while at Oxford, receiving two half-blues, and continued that both in the US and back here in Australia, where I captained the first Victorian team to compete at Nationals. In later years, I also took up Gaelic football and indoor soccer, to keep fit. These days, I ride my bike to work and try to do yoga and pilates regularly, because I have a bad back. Weekends are often taken up with my kids sporting activities, or spending time at our block in the country.
If you have had a career disruption, how did you manage to stay productive during this time – what helped you the most?
I took nearly a year of maternity leave with each of my two children, and worked part-time until my second child started school. During my maternity leave periods, I still did some research, through joint supervison and working on getting papers published. After doing this unpaid with the first child, I asked my Head of School if I could start back 0.2 research only after 6 months, which he approved. While I was part-time, I was fortunate to have some flexibility in the days I worked, as had a mix of child-care arrangements, including family members. Support from my self-employed partner, my mother and my mother-in-law was really crucial. I was also a lot more focused in how I spent my working hours, and any extra hours I worked at home above the official hours were used for research only (that’s how the first edition of our book was written, at home in the evenings after my son went to sleep).
How do you cope with self-doubt? How do you cope with imposter syndrome?
I’ve read quite a lot of feminist literature, which has given me a good understanding of the broader context and social constructs behind my self-double. So I can argue back (to myself!) with reasoning and facts, including reminding myself about what I’ve achieved. Though perhaps some of my drive to keep achieving is still about silencing that little internal doubting voice!