University plus business equals mutual success

22nd September 2016

Interface helps connect businesses to academic expertise to develop products, services and improve processes. In our regular blog we feature both businesses and academics who have collaborated on a variety of projects.

Dr Natalie Coull is one of a small group of academics at Abertay University which partnered with Droman Crime Solutions and Police Scotland to develop a “serious game” to help police tackle cybercrime. We decided to find out a bit more about Dr Coull, her inspirations and what she sees are the benefits of business-academic partnerships.

What inspired you to become an academic?

When I started university I was a single, teenage mum with an 18-month old baby. I hadn’t enjoyed school-level education so was apprehensive about how I would find my time at university, but my love of maths and programming and desire to be able to support myself financially encouraged me to give it a try. Each and every lecturer that I met during my time as an undergraduate inspired me to work hard and opened my eyes to the joys of teaching and research. By the time I graduated, I had developed a real appetite for learning and advancing knowledge. I was fortunate to be able to study for a doctorate in technology enhanced learning in the area of computer programming, and so could directly combine teaching and research. Following this, and a post-doctoral position in the same area, I moved into an academic role as a natural progression.

What benefits do collaborations with businesses bring to the university?

As a lecturer, I find it tremendously valuable to have the opportunity to work with businesses on collaborative projects. I can use these to exercise and develop my research base in a practical setting, and the results definitely enhance my teaching and inspire project topics for students. We are an outward-facing university, and working on real world problems is a great opportunity for staff and students alike.

What do you think is the hardest thing for a business when it comes to collaborating with academia?

Industry, and particularly the SME sector, is typically seeking solutions over relatively short timescales with a focus on adding value to their processes and products. Academia tends to be driven by the discovery of new, fundamental knowledge that may or may not translate to the business world. Working with industry is very effective and rewarding for all parties involved when these different agendas align.

What do you think that other countries could learn from the way universities and businesses collaborate in Scotland?

The Scottish Funding Council’s Innovation Vouchers administered by Interface are a great vehicle to allow small companies to benefit from academic expertise to enhance their business. Likewise, universities in Scotland have a unique opportunity to form close relationships with businesses. Many larger organisations are able to employ their own research staff so opportunities like innovation enable smaller companies to benefit from this expertise.

What gets you up on a Monday morning?

I love the diversity and flexibility that I have in my job, which lets me pursue opportunities that interest me. I find teaching and research tremendously rewarding in different ways. In my teaching I feel I make a real contribution to the development of my students. Research gives me the freedom to choose my own direction and find avenues of knowledge discovery that I can follow in order to develop myself as an academic.

When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I don’t really remember being too focussed on one particular career when I was younger. I think young people are under tremendous pressure to pick subjects at school that will help them achieve their career goals, when their understanding of different jobs is based only on their own interactions with people in these careers. There are so many valuable and rewarding jobs out there that young people are unaware of. Computing for example is one such subject area that is often misunderstood by youngsters and those who are influencing their subject and degree choice.

If you could change the world, what would you do first?

It’s not for me to change the world, but I am excited by some of the changes I see with regards to raising the profile of computing in schools and the recognition that it is a pervasive skill necessary for the 21st century. Products such as the Raspberry Pi and Arduinos make kits for programming available at a low cost. The opportunities for change are in the development of teaching libraries around those kits that draw on and enhance the talent and creativity in our children. Abertay is already working to promote programming at an early age through some of its outreach activities and I would like to see more developments in this area.