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Five Minutes with Jared Berghold

Five Minutes with Jared Berghold

What’s your background and why did you decide to join the University?

I studied computer engineering at UTS and have worked most of my career as a software engineer. Since graduating I’ve worked almost exclusively within the tertiary education sector and around research and development. I’ve always been interested in the role computers and software play in research and development and their capacity to contribute to the advancement of humanity. Being involved in research is a really good opportunity to do that kind of thing.

I’m leading the data science team in the Sydney Informatics Hub, a new Core Research Facility.Over the past 10-20 years, computing hardware has become capable enough to process some statistical and machine-learning techniques that we could once only theorise about, or only run over very small data sets. We’re at a point now where we can do more interesting things with the knowledge and expertise that the people in my team have, combined with access to powerful computers.

What kind of work does the Sydney Informatics Hub do?

We’re one of seven Core Research Facilities at the University. While most of the other facilities manage and operate large, expensive equipment, our hub consists of a large group of people, who conduct research computing and data science work. We also work closely with the Centre for Translational Data Science, a group of researchers who are at the cutting edge of their own fields of statistics and machine learning. We leverage their experience and knowledge and apply it with our team of skilled research engineers to solve problems from a whole range of disciplines, whether it’s improving the efficiency of milk production at the dairy farm on our Camden campus to improving diagnoses for certain cancers – and anything in between.

You have an installation at Vivid this year. How did you get involved?

A friend, Luc Small, and I talked about getting involved for a few years. Luc is an electronics hobbyist and really talented with that kind of thing. I have a background in software engineering and have worked in the past at a research centre called iCinema at UNSW creating interactive art, and I’ve always been keen to use those skills outside of my day job. We entered an expression of interest last year and were successful!

We titled our artwork ‘always coming, always going’, with an underlying idea centring on scientific discovery. The installation looks at the connection between humanity’s sense of wonder and curiosity and how that relates to scientific discovery. It looks – in a fun, surface way –at some of the major scientific events in the past few years, such as the Large Hadron Collider and the event of smashing protons together and the insights we’ve gained from that. We also channelled the Human Genome Project and also the gravitational waves experiment that was done recently, providing empirical evidence for something Einstein had predicted many years ago.

We’re featured inside the Overseas Passenger Terminal. We wanted a space where we could attach something to a ceiling as it was important for the experience that people could look up to induce a sense of wonder and awe. A lot of the objects at Vivid are free standing on the ground, but there’s not too many things where you can stand underneath and enjoy it. That was something we were going for, something a bit different.

Jared's Light installation at Vivid Jared Berghold’s 2017 Vivid installation entitled ‘Always Coming, Always Going’ at the Overseas Passenger Terminal.

What was the inspiration for the piece?

The title for the artwork – always coming, always going ­– came from primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall in an interview she did with Andrew Denton. She was talking about our shared sense of wonder with chimpanzees and how she’d observed them looking up at the stars or a waterfall and wondering what this thing is – it’s always coming, it’s always going.

We don’t talk much about this emotion – that awe-inspiring experience, that sense of wonderment. It’s this sort of other special feeling, distinct from happiness and joy, that we all share as humans. I think this feeling not only defines us as humans, but explains why we have such a drive to understand the world around us. Something my friend and I wanted to do was to mix the worlds of art and science, so we used this platform to examine the idea of what drives scientific discovery and the development of technologies that help make the world better.

We don’t talk much about this emotion – that awe-inspiring experience, that sense of wonderment … I think this feeling not only defines us as humans, but explains why we have such a drive to understand the world around us. -Jared Berghold

What was the biggest surprise you encountered during this project?

Vivid is a huge event now. About 2.31 million people attended last year. When we started, my friend and I had cold feet – we were thinking, do we really want to do this? It’s going to involve a lot of work.

The first meeting I had for Vivid was with two of the event organisers, a representative from a rigging company and the venue manager for the Overseas Passenger Terminal. That’s when I realised there would be a team of people supporting us, it wouldn’t just be the two of us alone in this. That was a really special, pleasant element, actually being a part of a team. It wasn’t just our idea and our efforts to make this artwork, it was the combined efforts of a whole team of people.

What are your interests outside of work?

Spending time with my family. I have a two-year-old daughter and another one on the way. One of my best experiences was two nights ago, watching her running around under the artwork and looking up and enjoying it in her own way, which was something I was really hoping to do with the installation – trying to make it enjoyable for adults and children alike. I also work on some software development, developing games, real-time graphics, that sort of thing.

Please answer this question from the previous week’s participant, Brian Marshall: how do we make the notion of reconciliation not just something that’s packaged into one week? What can we do as a society to make sure it’s embedded throughout the year?

I think that’s a great question, albeit a challenging one. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I feel like I’m a product of my time and I hope things have changed, but I feel like the education I had on matters of Indigenous affairs, what happened historically, was quite lacking.

My response to this question would be that education needs to be improved so that people are told the truth about what’s happened and nothing is hidden or glossed over. It’s so important that people are exposed to the issues Aboriginal people face, because without that we won’t get to a better place. At the moment, few people actually take the time to learn about Indigenous cultures and the history properly, so the majority of us don’t have a good awareness of what people went through. I think education needs to improve a lot and there needs to be a lot more understanding and seeing from the Aboriginal perspective. Only then can we improve things. Other countries have faced problems, not of this nature, but of hurt and pain in their histories, and you can’t heal unless you understand what the problems were and what’s happened.

And finally, please share a question that you’d like to ask our next ‘Five Minutes with…’ participant.

What do you understand by the words translational data science? How do you think data science can be used to bring the most benefit to society?

Interview by Natalie Freeland

Photo credit: Gordon McDonald

This article was originally posted 2 Jun 2017 on the University of Sydney staff intranet