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Professor Alex Poulovassilis


Alex Poulovassilis’ long association with Birkbeck began in the 1980s when she came to do an MSc in Computer Science after several years working in the software industry. She went on to do a PhD at Birkbeck, and this postgraduate experience changed the course of her career as by the end she had decided to continue on into academia rather than return to the software industry.

Alex continued to collaborate with members of Birkbeck’s Computer Science department while she held postdoctoral posts at UCL and King’s College London and returned to Birkbeck as a member of staff in 1999 when she was appointed to one of the College’s 175th Anniversary Readerships. She became Professor of Computer Science in 2001 and in the subsequent twenty years held several senior roles at Birkbeck, including serving as Pro-Vice Master for Research and International Students and Founding Head of the Graduate Research School from 2002 to 2005; Co-Director of the London Knowledge Lab from 2003 to 2015; Head of Department from 2003 to 2006 and 2009 to 2010; Assistant Dean for Research in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics from 2009 to 2015; and Deputy Dean for Research Enhancement in the School of BEI from 2015 to 2021.

In these roles, she has championed interdisciplinary links between the sciences, social sciences and arts by leading cross-disciplinary discourse, establishment of collaborative research centres, projects and training programmes, and engagement with research stakeholders and professionals across disciplines and sectors. Her research in data integration, querying, analysis, visualisation and personalisation has been funded by numerous grants from the UK research councils.


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Alexandra Poulovassilis to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Poulovassilis is a computer scientist who has deep intellectual interests in digital technologies, innovation, the global proliferation of information on the internet, heterogeneous data sources, and the ways humans use (and misuse) mobile, embedded, and wearable technologies. She has been a leading member of the College since 1999. However, her contributions to our community can be traced much further back. Her BA in Mathematics had been completed at the University of Cambridge, after which she had worked at IBM in Greece. However, by the 1980s she returned to the UK, bringing to Birkbeck a studentship awarded by the Greek state. While at Birkbeck, she completed a MSc and PhD in computer science. Her PhD, awarded in 1990, was entitled “The Design and Implementation of FDL: A Functional Database Language”. She argued that FDL “improves upon previous [computer] languages with a functional data model by allowing any computable function to be defined and stored, and by supporting arbitrarily nested data types which are all persistent”. The research earned her a post-doc at UCL, followed by a lectureship at King's College London. In 1999, she returned to her intellectual home here at Birkbeck, being awarded a Readership under the prestigious 175th Anniversary Chairs & Readers scheme. Two years later, she was promoted to a Chair and, since then, we have never allowed her to leave. Today, she remains a Professor Emerita and a College Fellow.

Poulovassilis’ contributions to Birkbeck have been immense. She is a formidable academic, administrator, and collaborator, talented in getting people with diverse skills and views in the same room to exchange information and ideas. The tasks she sets herself address some of the most challenging problems facing people in the twenty-first century. As we all know and experience, people today are increasingly bombarded with extraordinary quantities of data, which are located in multifarious data stores and accessible in numerous environments. Selecting, assessing, interpreting, and communicating ideas and solutions has never been so complex. Poulovassilis’ task has been to help people navigate the proliferation of new digital applications and technologies.

One example of how she has done this involves her work with two Knowledge Labs. In 2003, when she was Head of Computer Science and Information Systems at Birkbeck as well as being the founding Head of the Birkbeck Graduate Research School, she became a co-director of the London Knowledge Lab. This was a collaboration between two of the UK’s most prominent centres of research – the UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck. The Lab brought together computer and social scientists to explore the place of digital technologies and media in culture, social environments, and knowledge production. It sought to design, build, and evaluate systems, processes, and interfaces, as well as to tease out assumptions about knowledge and learning that underlie digital technologies. In 2016, the two collaborating universities went their separate ways, with Poulovassilis becoming the founding director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab. To gain some idea of her levels of energy and ability to juggle multiple complex tasks, it must be mentioned that she had already served as Assistant Dean for Research and was serving as Deputy Dean for Research Enhancement in the School of Business, Economics, and Informatics.

Success in her field requires exceptional levels of interdisciplinarity. Indeed, the only way people can understand and analyze the complex worlds in which we live is by dialogue between the sciences, social sciences, and arts. This is no easy task. The disciplines speak different languages; their conceptual frameworks can be in opposition; fundamental questions of evidence and identification often diverge. Such challenges have been embraced by Poulovassilis.

There is no time in an oration of this length to explore even a small number of her projects, so I hope she will forgive me if I focus on some of the ones that I found most exciting. For example, a decade ago, Poulovassilis was involved with biomedical informatics. In collaboration with others, she helped develop ASSIST, a medical “knowledgebase” that would “facilitate cervical cancer research by integrating medical records”, thereby enabling physicians to identify women at high risk of developing this form of cancer.

Much of her work also explores how people can create meaningful dialogues in collaborative online work environments. What are the most effective ways to share knowledge, skills, and resources to achieve specific aims? Poulovassilis seeks to empower teachers as well as learners through a diverse range of computational techniques, including visualisation, ontology-assisted data integration, learning analytics, semantic analysis, and personalisation. As part of this work, she has done fascinating research on Exploratory Learning Environments (ELE), using microworlds, virtual science labs, educational games, and physical computing kits. Because many teachers are reluctant to use ELEs, Teacher Assistant Tools had to be developed to provide guidance about the ways teachers could support their students’ learning and interactions. In this way, teachers can ensure than their students’ collaborative activities result in meaningful outcomes.

In recent years, Poulovassilis has cultivated an interest in museums and museum culture. We all know that museums are important cultural artifacts that not only contribute to the economy but, more importantly, have an impact on people’s intellectual and social lives. But we know surprisingly little about museums themselves. This is despite the fact that, in the late twentieth century, the number of museums in the UK more than tripled. But, as Birkbeck’s “Mapping Museum” project shows, many of these museums are extremely small, unaccredited, run by volunteers, and serving local communities. “Mapping Museum” seeks to document, analyse, and interpret how the museum sector has changed since 1960. The result has been the first comprehensive database of UK museums, which is now freely available on the internet.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on all aspects of social life, including its museum cultures. “Museums in the Pandemic” is a collaborative project led by Professor Fiona Candlin with Poulovassilis as a co-investigator responsible for the development of the database and web application functionality. It uses “big data techniques” to explore factors that make museums at risk of closing over the pandemic and asks why many museums proved resilient. This project is still underway but a preliminary analysis of the museums that closed permanently during the pandemic suggests that their fate had less to do with the health measures implemented by the government and more to do with wider, systemic problems in the sector such as long-standing government cuts to local authority budgets, problems with accommodation, and the retirement of leading personnel.

No mention of her achievements can ignore her stellar work for gender equality in STEM subjects. Birkbeck has been championing the role of female academics in scientific subjects for years, and Poulovassilis has always been at the top table. She has worked tirelessly on Birkbeck’s Athena SWAN committee from its early days. She took a role in drafting two successful Bronze Award applications and mentors mid-career women on the Aurora Leadership programme. She is a Project Board member of the Trigger Project (Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research), which is a five-country EU research project promoting women in science and technology. At Birkbeck, the Trigger Project has involved exploring potentially discriminating formal as well as informal behaviours, promoting female scientists in external collaborations, a mentoring scheme, teaching gender in PhD courses, and creating structural opportunities for the commercialisation of women's work in research and innovation. Although there is still a great deal of work to do, Poulovassilis has helped to make academia a better place for all genders.

Finally, this brief oration cannot do justice to the range and quality of the contributions Poulovassilis has made to knowledge and the Birkbeck community. She has brought in external research grants for her work in data management and for her interdisciplinary projects. She is the co-editor for four books: Web Dynamics (2004)The Functional Approach to Data Management (2004)Reasoning in Event-Based Distributed Systems (2011), and New Perspectives in Gender, Science & Innovation (2020). She is renowned for her support of PhD students, organising frequent meetings, and spending a large amount of time improving the organisation of their theses and their writing style.

In these and many other ways, Poulovassilis is a Birkbeckian. Colleagues have told me that she has been “a great inspiration” and a “charismatic leader”. They maintain that her “openness to new ideas, empathy and integrity are qualities difficult to find”. She is married to Mir Derakhshan, a software developer who also gained his PhD at Birkbeck in the 1980s, where he specialised in binary relational data modelling and storage structures, and has a daughter Maria who seems to be following in her parents’ scientific footprints. We hope that her retirement will enable her and her family to spend more time at their other home in Napflio, Greece, with its magnificent Venetian and Ottoman architecture and deep blue Saronic Gulf seas.

We are grateful and thrilled that, by accepting this College Fellowship, she will continue to be an ambassador for Birkbeck.