a woman in a red shirt walking through bushland

Introducing Karen

Karen is a Senior Research Data Specialist at MDAP, bushland guardian and maker-creative working at the intersection of data and art. With a Masters in Cultural Material Conservation, she is passionate about data ethics and engaging community as essential to revealing the potential of cultural-based data collections.

Tell us a bit about your career trajectory so far

My current role in MDAP is my first in academia. Prior to this, I worked as an actuary for over twenty-five years in insurance companies and consulting firms. I realised early that I had a love for data – looking for errors, fixing them, creating datasets that were understood, well documented, and easy to find.

During that time, I also undertook a fine arts degree, and more recently a Masters in Cultural Material Conservation. For me, the common thread that links my mathematical and arts foci is an appreciation of patterns and beauty, and a satisfaction in being a carer and protector of sorts.

My current making practice is surprisingly data-driven. I’ve manually collected all words used to describe colour – in this case, William Gibson’s Neuromancer – and made a database of meta-data around them. For example, who the colour was used in relation to, location, etc. The special thing about William Gibson is his astonishingly descriptive use of non-traditional colour adjectives, like ‘mean grey’, ‘poisoned silver’, and ‘the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel’. In some works I’ve grouped all those relating to individual characters, or places. In this particular work it was a triptych of the colours in the entire novel, read left-to-right like an English-language book.

closeup of a grid of small multi-coloured squares rendered in needlepoint
Inspired by the William Gibson novel Neuromancer, this work comprises 894 coloured squares of embroidery on paper – each exploring a colour-based word or description from the text. Image: Karen Thompson. Detail. Colour Words / Neuromancer / Triptych 3.

Tell us about an interesting project you’re working on at MDAP

There is so much incredible and important research happening at the University.

In the most recent round, I worked on a collaboration that applied mathematical modelling techniques and neural networks to LiDAR data to identify the bank edges of rivers. This was traditionally a labour-intensive exercise requiring fieldwork. In another collaboration I worked with researchers making Indigenous song collections searchable and more readily available to communities. We built and added to a relational database which links songs to people, place, language, and recordings.

The breadth of research we can contribute to is unique and a privilege.

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

Museums and cultural institutions are being challenged to prove relevance – especially those that survive on meagre government funding and have vast collections in storage. I’m interested in how community and researchers can benefit from the organisation and surfacing of the rich data collected and currently being collected.

Related to this, I recently read in The Conversation the idea that ‘databases are colonial constructs’. This feels like something important to explore and understand further.

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

My partner and I recently became custodians of beautiful natural bushland in the country. It has special ecological significance, and we are excited to spend more time there to get to know the land.

A person walking through bushland surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees and bush scrub
Walking among trees. Being a bushland guardian requires an intimate, embodied knowledge of a unique ecology including weather, soil, animals and plants.

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?

This is such a tricky question to answer. As I came to academia after decades in industry, I feel I observe the academic culture through a slightly differently lens to individuals who have built a career within the structure. I hope to see, and be part of, an evolution that values more diversity in paths through and into university work. For example, while a PhD is certainly an achievement to be celebrated, it would be wonderful for other ‘equivalent’ experiences and knowledges to receive wider and equal respect. I think this could welcome new thinking into the University landscape.

I also hope to see more overlaps between STEM and HASS, as well as increased porousness and flexibility in grant funding – so resource sharing becomes more common. The research that could come out of these innovations alone could be astounding.