Introducing Robert

Whether it’s decoding questions about the universe, ancient Arabic texts or monolithic ‘Jars’ in present-day Laos, the newest MDAP Research Data Specialist, Robert Turnbull has us covered. Discover his journey from Australia to the Middle East and back again to pursue his life passion in uncovering questions of the past.

Hi Rob! Can you please tell us a bit about your career trajectory so far?

Sure! I studied Mathematics and Astrophysics in the Dean’s Scholars program at Monash University from 2001–2003. After this I worked at Monash Cluster Computing, developing the Geodynamics modelling software framework called Underworld and the visualisation system called gLucifer.

A 3D model simulating faults forming on the Earth’s crust. Image: supplied

After this, I studied a Master of Divinity (MDiv) at Ridley College. This required lots of reading of Ancient Greek and Hebrew and, out of this experience, I developed several apps for mobile devices for learning these languages and others.

In 2013, our family moved to Jordan, where, for five years, I worked in a club for deaf adults. My family background is from the Middle East and I’d always wanted an opportunity to learn Arabic. During my time at the deaf club, I developed a software package to help streamline editing movies and mixing in scenes where the story is related in sign language.

While we were living in Jordan, I twice had the chance to visit St. Catherine’s Monastery which has ‘the oldest continually operating library in the world’. In 1975, a forgotten room full of ancient manuscripts was discovered, including a family of Arabic manuscripts from the 9th and 10th centuries with a highly unusual text of the New Testament Gospels. I decided to do a PhD studying this manuscript family.

To do so, I created a manuscript analysis software framework in Django and used a number of numerical and phylogenetic techniques to understand the history of this text and relate it to the rest of the New Testament manuscript tradition.

Rob transcribes ancient manuscripts stored at St. Catherine’s Monastery (left). Here is an example of an Arabic lectionary manuscript that he analysed using his software (right). Photo: Library of Congress

Tell us about an interesting project at MDAP.

At the moment, I’m working on a fantastic project on the Plain of Jars in Laos with Dr Louise Shewan from the School of Earth Sciences and fellow MDAPper, Dr Aleks Michalewicz. The Plain of Jars is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with beautiful and mysterious megalithic objects. A huge barrier in studying them is that the region is highly contaminated with unexploded ordnance (cluster bombs) from the Vietnam War. The archaeological team have explored the sites with drones and made photogrammetry models of some sites.

“MDAP is working to curate the data gathered and assist in data analysis and visualisation. I hope the tools we are building will help the researchers for years to come and to be able to bring to light some of the mysteries of this fascinating world treasure.”

What are some of the solvable, difficult, and wicked problems on your horizon?

I’m also currently working on an exciting and challenging project with A/Prof Heroen Verbruggen (Science) and MDAP’s Dr Mar Quiroga and Bobbie Shaban to study microbial eukaryotes, which are a key part of the Earth’s ecosystem. The majority of microbial eukaryotes are still to be uncovered and this project is trying to work towards their discovery by assembling huge amounts of publicly available metagenomic DNA data.

After assembly, the resulting genome sequences will be classified to identify which type of organism the DNA is from and I’m experimenting with a way of using Neural Networks to assist in the classification. The initial results are quite promising and we hope that this will be a useful tool for the researchers to apply to the dataset in the years to come. 

A feature of my PhD studies was taking techniques from bioinformatics and applying them to textual traditions. Now in this project I’m getting the chance to go the other way and take deep learning techniques from Natural Language Processing and apply them to genomics.

Can you tell us about your latest adventure or next planned one outside of MDAP?

“My dream is to hopefully return to St Catherine’s monastery again to further explore some of the Arabic manuscripts preserved there.”

Over the last few years, I’ve worked on a number of models for Natural Language Processing of Ancient Greek and Arabic and I hope to develop these further and make them publicly available to assist in research in these languages and especially in the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in the Middle Ages.

In the context of a rapidly evolving global environment and UoM’s research strategy, what would you most like to explore, challenge, or innovate in your work in the future?

Working with the team at MDAP is a dream come true. I’m whole-heartedly enjoying the opportunity to work with world experts across the University of Melbourne in a variety of disciplines. It’s driving me to learn new areas and explore many different techniques and tools for data analysis, visualisation, and machine learning.

“I’m convinced that there are many research fields where applying these data analytic tools can provide new insights and make a significant contribution to the state of knowledge.”

The role at MDAP gives me a chance to work with domain experts and to impart skills about working with data to enhance and accelerate research outcomes for the long-term.