Annalu Waller in conversation with Beth Johnstone, Alumni Relations Officer

Published on 2 July 2020

On a chilly February day as the afternoon light poured in to her office in the Queen Mother Building, Professor Annalu Waller told me about the Valentine’s Card she received from her fourth year students.

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“It made me feel very loved”

Annalu Waller

Not only has Annalu’s teaching inspired many students who have come through Computing, but it has helped to transform lives through her research and her engagement with other academics, professionals and with the wider local community since arriving here on a South African Scholarship to study for her PhD in 1989.

As we discuss her 31 years at the University, she reflects on the changes she has witnessed and has been part of throughout that time.

Finding a user-centred design approach to technology was a key focus of her PhD and was partly inspired by her own experience. “When I came to the University to study my PhD I had to use a company sponsored laptop as there was no funding within universities for students with a disability”.

Through her PhD, Annalu developed narrative technology support for adults with acquired aphasia following stroke and then went on to complete several post-docs in Dundee, furthering her research in the field of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). AAC describes a number of tools and approaches which help people who experience difficulties with speech and other forms of expressive communication.

For Annalu, AAC allows her to explore fundamental questions around the role of digital communications in the lives of its users. “I’m very interested in the question of how we make the digital world not just accessible, but a place where people can thrive”.

To allow disabled adults and children to thrive in the digital world, means involving them in the design and the use of technology. This inspired the Computing department to create the ‘Straight Talking Group’, a user group of individuals who use AAC. The group meets fortnightly to work with researchers from the School to evaluate and develop AAC technology for educational and commercial use.

“Dundee was one of the first universities to do research into accessible learning materials. I love what I do because it spans different subjects. I get to talk to students in different schools, including Medicine, Dentistry and Education, to share with them our research on AAC to equip them to view all patients and learners as people with potential”

Annalu Waller

“Our university is fundamentally very inclusive – we value diversity. A lot of people who come to study don’t leave because of the values that Dundee has. Indeed, Dundee took me to its heart!”

Indeed, the community Annalu has been part of here in Dundee has shaped her experience as a student and a staff member, and a significant part of this has been her relationship with the University chaplaincy. “I knew that I needed the support and sense of belonging here, and not just academically. The Chaplaincy was a big part of my time as a student, with breakfast in the Chaplaincy on Thursday morning and then the Sunday service followed by lunch”. That relationship with the chaplaincy has continued, as Annalu is now an honorary (Anglican) Chaplain at the University, giving support to students and staff members through the different stages of their lives.

Her commitment to the University and the wider community has not gone unnoticed. For her services to people with complex communication needs, Annalu was awarded an OBE in 2015. But that’s all part of the job, she told me as we drew our conversation to a close. “Being an academic is about transforming the lives of staff and students and those external to the University”, she concluded.

Alumna, Dr Victoria Franklin, shares with us her experience of coming to Dundee, her career since and how her connection to her alma mater has continued through collaborative projects with Prof. Annalu Waller and Computing.

a black and white picture of Victoria

What led you to study in the School of Medicine and then to follow a career path in Paediatrics after you graduated from the University of Dundee?

I was interested in Dundee as a place to study because it had a very progressive course at the time with early exposure to clinical medicine and continuous assessment that I thought would suit me. My mum and I came up to Dundee for an Open Day, arriving early in the morning on an overnight bus from London. We were met at the bus station by students and driven to Belmont Hall in a University of Dundee minibus, given fresh towels and the use of a shower block, and then taken for breakfast before the Open Day started. That welcome was amazing and really made the decision for me. I knew early on I wanted to do Paediatrics and was lucky to be in the first cohort of students that studied a newly created intercalated BMSc in ‘Developmental and Child Health’.

What was your experience like at the University of Dundee?

Dundee was a great place to study, my first year was in Belmont Hall. I learnt to work hard and play hard and made amazing lifelong friends including my husband who I met at the ‘Rectors Sherry Party’ in the Union Bar on the first day of Fresher’s Week. We celebrated our 20th Wedding Anniversary this year.

What career roles have you been in and what is your current role?

After house jobs in Dundee and Stirling, I have been doing Paediatrics, first in Edinburgh, then Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool, Sydney Children’s Hospital Australia, then back to Liverpool to sit my membership exams. I returned to Dundee for registrar training and then 11 years ago I was appointed as a Paediatric Consultant in Inverness. 

You were involved in a project creating the first SMS text messaging system to engage teenagers with Diabetes. How did that come about and how did the project go?

I was very lucky in my training to have the opportunity to do a Research Fellowship, funded by Diabetes UK and supervised by Professor Steve Greene. We came up with the idea of creating a text messaging support system ‘Sweet Talk’ for young people with Diabetes. I had met Annalu Waller when we were students in Belmont Hall, I was in first year and she was studying for a PhD in Computer Science, and we had remained friends since. By that time she was a lecturer in the University, and I approached her about creating the text messaging programme. She offered it as a project to a fantastic BSc Hons student, Stuart Gibson, who did a brilliant job at creating the prototype. We were awarded a prize for the idea from the Medical Futures Awards, and got sponsorship for the study from Orange to develop it further. The text messaging support system was incredibly well received by the teenagers - back in 2001, the concept of personalised automated texts was novel, so there was a real perception of individualised support.

Since then, Annalu, now Professor Waller, and I have done a few collaborative projects with MSc students. Last year, one student created a great graph based App to allow patients to record their HbA1c at each clinic visit. Currently we have a BSc student working with our dietitian to create a Carbohydrate Counting Education App, which will help support patients newly diagnosed with Diabetes. These collaborations have been fantastic for both of us; Annalu gets real world projects to offer to her students and we benefit from the technology that is developed, which we would otherwise have no funding to create.

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