Three Actually Isn’t a Crowd: Reflections on my Internship with the UKRI TAS Hub

post by Cecily Pepper (2019 cohort)

About the Internship

In December 2021, I began an internship with the UKRI TAS (Trustworthy Autonomous Systems) Hub on two projects: TAS for Health and TAS Test and Trace. I applied to this internship as I have an interest in technology and autonomous systems, how people develop and measure trust towards technology, and, perhaps most of all, the effect of technology on health and wellbeing. My own PhD project is about exploring the impact of social media platforms on the mental health and wellbeing of care-experienced young people, so hopefully the connection and interest between technology, health, and wellbeing is clear. Another key motivator in applying for the TAS internship was that the role involved completing an in-depth thematic analysis for each project. As I am doing multiple thematic analyses for my own research, I thought this would be a great opportunity to enhance and develop my skills in this area. Moreover, the internship was a role that included working with two other interns to complete the analyses. This especially interested me as I enjoy working with others and was curious as to how the group analyses would work compared to the analyses I have done by myself.

The TAS for Health project explored the attitudes towards using a smart mirror for health from two participant groups: those who were recovering from a stroke and those who have the medical condition multiple sclerosis (MS). My role involved taking part in the participant workshops, preparing the transcripts from the workshops, and completing the thematic analysis with the other interns. It was a truly enjoyable experience listening to the experiences of the individuals who participated in the research. As well as this, assisting in the workshops offered another layer of insight to the analysis. The other project, TAS Test and Trace, followed on from previous studies around the general public’s attitudes and trust in the NHS Test and Trace application for Covid-19. For this project, my role was to again prepare the transcripts and complete a thematic analysis with the other interns. I will also contribute to the paper writing for both projects, which are currently underway. This is another aspect of the internship that applies to my own PhD activities, as it is a great opportunity to develop my paper writing skills ready for when I aim to publish my own studies.

Reflections on the Internship Experience

I have thoroughly enjoyed the internship and learned so much. I have developed my thematic analysis skills, my collaborative skills, and learned more about how to present and display research findings (to name a few). For this blog, I will now share some reflections on the experiences I have had now the two projects have ended. Perhaps the biggest and most salient reflection I have from working with two TAS research groups was the value of working with others and being part of a research team. I currently don’t belong in a research group and, as PhD students may know, the doctorate journey can be a lonely one. I find many times in my own work that I wish I could bounce my ideas off someone, especially during analysis work. Don’t get me wrong, I have wonderful supervisors who I meet with regularly and they offer brilliant and insightful advice; but doing an analysis collaboratively with two other people was a fantastic experience. We were able to continuously bounce our ideas off one another, question our reasoning together, and have regular chats about anything we queried. This made me appreciate teamwork in a completely new light and it’s safe to say three was definitely not a crowd! We also all learnt a new way of completing a thematic analysis, explained by a member of the research group, which was a valued addition to our current skillset.

In addition to this, having weekly meetings with a research group was a great experience and made me really feel like I was part of a team. As I mentioned, I don’t belong to any research groups so I haven’t had this experience yet; apart from perhaps my CDT cohort, who I love spending time with, but our research is all so different so it can be hard to find commonalities to discuss, and get-togethers are rare now we’re in the later stages of our PhD and due to the pandemic. On a personal note, I’m a shy introvert and tend to anxiously avoid social events, but being required to work with others so regularly and closely was valuable in pushing me outside of my comfort zone. So, one of the biggest take-aways from my internship is the value of working closely with others and having a team of researchers to meet with regularly. I’ve met some lovely people who I hope to work with again in the future and I have learned so many things about the importance of working with a research team.

The second reflection I had from my internship experience was the realisation and surprise at how welcome a distraction from my own PhD work was. I was in a bit of a rut with my PhD work, struggling with recruiting a hard-to-reach participant group whilst also struggling with the final stages of a separate thematic analysis for another of my studies. With the internship, I soon realised that I welcomed the work with open arms and found my research spark again, that had obviously been dimmed by my own research struggles. While I knew subconsciously that I was struggling with my own work, the internship reignited my love for research and made me realise I needed to remove my head from the imaginary sand and address the issues I had in my own work. This was therefore helpful to me personally as it was a reminder that I had a passion for research, and it was encouragement to resolve the issues I had with my own work rather than burying and avoiding them.

Overall, I had a great time and learnt a lot from both the academic side but also from the personal side. Working on two thematic analyses was fantastic practice and I believe my skills have developed significantly. Additionally, being part of a research team with regular meetings and deadlines was useful for the future, both in an industry and academic sense. Despite the value of both the professional and research skills I have developed, the most enjoyable part of the internship was working closely with other researchers and having a welcomed break from the lonely world of doing a PhD during a global pandemic.

 

The joy of building things. My reflection on the internship at BlueSkeye AI

post by Keerthy Kusumam ( 2017 cohort)

September 2020 – January 2021

I interned at BlueSkeye AI, a company that delivers ethical AI for supporting mental health for the vulnerable population using facial and voice behaviour
analysis. The long term vision of BlueSkeye AI is to ’Create AI you can trust for
a better future, together.’ The goals of my PhD aligns perfectly well with that
of BlueSkeye, where comprehending various facial behaviours to recognise markers of mood disorders forms a core part of the work. The company BlueSkeye AI is cofounded by my PhD supervisor Prof Michel Valstar and the teammates include several of my past PhD colleagues. The following pointers are my reflections on my four-month-long internship at BlueSkeye AI.

The joy of building things that work. The internship at BlueSkeye
rekindled my enthusiasm to build systems that work in the real world, face real
challenges, and create real impact. When I joined, BlueSkeye AI had a product
that was going to be released to the market and what I had to build would
then be integrated into this product. That made it extremely well-defined as a
problem, where we were not trying to define a problem itself but rather engineer a solution that needs working on real-world data, leveraging the cutting-edge computer vision/machine learning research.

Real World Vs Research World. My emphasis on real-world data stems
from my divided self where I am both a computer vision researcher as well as a
roboticist. Before doing my PhD I spent nearly 4 years in a robotics research lab with an active collaboration culture – where everyone in an open-plan workspace contributes to projects irrespective of their original funding sources. This cultivated the exchange of ideas across disciplines – computer vision, cybernetics, robotics, reasoning, machine learning etc leading to very creative and interesting bodies of work. In robotics, computer vision is often a tool that it relies upon to make decisions, which means robustness and consistency precedes accuracy. In computer vision research, however, beating the state-of-the-art on benchmark datasets seems to be the key marker of success. I enjoy both these aspects and the internship opportunity at BlueSkeye AI gave me just that – a place to bring those together. I got to build a computer vision-based social gaze estimation system that works on a smartphone. The challenge was about finding the right balance between exploration and exploitation. Here I had to optimize for efficiency, usability, practicality, simplicity and data efficiency along with the standard performance metrics that I use in research.

The Team and Teamwork. My onboarding was seamless, owing to the
hands-on approach adopted by the BlueSkeye AI’s leadership. I was also familiar with the team, so I was lucky to enjoy an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. The weekly meetings where everyone discussed progress or the issues they faced, posed as learning sessions for me. I understood the value of communication and brainstorming from the team as a whole, to keep up the momentum. I worked in sync with the lead machine learning engineer who set up several documents and code specifically for me, that removed my roadblocks to integrate the module into a mobile device. I also learned how managing tasks in a time-critical manner helps save time and resources for the company as well as yourself.

Importance of values. One should never compromise on their values
while working for a company and it is important to work in a place where value
systems align. BlueSkeye AI’s five-year mission is: ’To create the most-used
technology for ethical machine understanding of face and voice behaviour that enables citizens to be seen, heard, and understood.’ I was astonished by their sensitivity towards mental health research, strict adherence to ethical guidelines while handling data, being transparent to the data volunteers about their data and having numerous clinicians with great expertise on board. Being part of the company albeit during a short internship provided me with a sense of purpose and I felt attuned to my values.

One Giant Leap for My Future: Summer Internship Experience with NASA GeneLab

post by Henry Cope (2019 cohort)

Over the summer I had the honour of taking part in the NASA GeneLab summer internship programme. Despite previous plans to complete this in sunny California, the pandemic made it necessary to adapt the internship format, which I must admit was bittersweet. Nevertheless, I was incredibly excited to step into my role as a space biology bioinformatics intern.

Now, I appreciate right off the bat that this might raise a few questions, so I will endeavour to briefly break down the relevant terms as follows:

      • Space biology – This is the study of the adaptation of terrestrial organisms (e.g., you and I) to the extreme environment of space. Two of the main spaceflight stressors are increased radiation exposure and microgravity (0G). The knowledge generated from space biology is important for developing improved countermeasures, such as to reduce microgravity-driven muscle loss experienced by astronauts, which also occurs on Earth due to factors including muscle wasting diseases, or bed rest following surgery. If you are interested in learning about space biology in more detail, I can recommend this open-access review; it’s a very exciting time right now for spaceflight!
      • Omics – These are types of biological “big data” (usually ending in “-omics”, go figure) that tell us about the underlying functioning of different systems within the body. Of course, a classic example is genomics, in which your unique DNA sequence imparts traits such as eye colour. However, there is also transcriptomics, which capture snapshots of how activated/expressed your genes are at given points in time.
      • Bioinformatics – This is essentially analysing biological data, including omics, via software. When a sample of biological material is taken, it can be processed in the lab for different kinds of omics analyses and then computational methods are used to identify meaningful patterns in the data. Lots of programming! 🙂
      • NASA GeneLab – NASA GeneLab is an organisation that consists of two primary components. One is the data side, which is delivered via a carefully curated public biobank of omics collected from spaceflight missions (usually involving model organisms like mice), or from studies on Earth that simulate aspects of spaceflight. The second side of GeneLab is the people side, which is mainly delivered via international analysis working groups (AWGs) that work together to analyse the data within the repository. Spaceflight experiments are costly, so GeneLab’s open-science approach of increasing access to data and collaboration during analysis is important for maximising the scientific potential of these experiments.

With the definitions out of the way, I will briefly describe my primary project for the internship. Essentially, I was presented with several transcriptomics datasets that had been generated from RNA extracted from the skin of mice. These datasets were derived from mice that had been flown on different missions, with lots of other variables such as differences in diet and duration spent on the International Space Station (ISS). Skin is particularly interesting in the context of space biology for several reasons as follows:

      • In spaceflight, dermatological issues such as rashes are very common
      • Skin is the first line of defence against cosmic radiation and an important barrier against pathogens
      • Skin can be monitored using non-invasive methods like swabs, which avoids risks associated with invasive biopsies
      • Skin can act as a “mirror”, telling us about the underlying health of the body in terms of things like immune function and diet
      • Despite the aforementioned importance of skin, skin is incredibly understudied in space!

I had carried out some initial analysis of the datasets prior to the start of the internship, under the guidance of Craig Willis, who was at the time a PhD student at the University of Exeter and is now a researcher at Ohio University! Whilst I had prior experience with programming, bioinformatics was new to me. Craig very kindly showed me the ropes so that I would have the necessary skills to jump straight into the internship project. That said, GeneLab runs programmes for teaching bioinformatics to students at different levels, so having prior bioinformatics skills was not at all a requirement.

Just before I started the internship, I met Afshin Beheshti, who is a bioinformatician and principal investigator at KBR/NASA Ames Research Center, amongst other roles! Afshin was incredibly friendly so we got on right away. Throughout the internship we met weekly via video call, but we also communicated via Slack throughout the week. I strongly believe that a line of communication which is more direct than email is essential for virtual internships. During the internship, GeneLab also organised online networking events, which gave me the opportunity to talk to the other interns about their projects.

Following my internship, I have continued to work on the skin analysis project, and we are now striving towards a publication, which will include astronaut data (a rarity!) alongside the rodent data. I also had the honour of presenting some of our findings online at the public NASA GeneLab AWG workshop in November, and in-person at the Royal Aeronautical Society Aerospace Medicine Group Annual Symposium in London in December. As part of the continued work on the project, I have also been able to engage with the GeneLab for High School (GL4HS) programme. Several students who have previously completed a high school level internship with GeneLab are now working on tasks such as literature review and figure generation for the publication. An additional output is that some of the semi-automatic figures that I have developed for this project have been adapted to different datasets for use in publications for the Covid-19 International Research Team (COV-IRT), of which Afshin is president.

Ultimately, I am very happy to have completed an internship with GeneLab. I’ve developed some great relationships along the way, which have continued past the scope of the internship. In particular, I’d like to thank Sam Gebre for organising the internship, Afshin Beheshti for being an excellent supervisor, and Sigrid Reinsch, Jennifer Claudio, Liz Blaber and the students involved in the GL4HS programme. If you wish to know more about my project or have questions about space biology in general, please feel free to reach me at: henry.cope@nottingham.ac.uk

-Henry

 

 

 

My Placement at the BBC

post by Joanne Parkes (2020 cohort)

My Business Partner is BBC Research and Development. Early in 2020, I came across an advert for a funded ICASE PhD Studentship seeking individuals interested in Enhancing the Digital Media User Experiences using 14 Human Values. It was proposed that these values or psychological drivers which underpin our behaviour could be utilised in some way to shape future offerings and assess their impact rather than relying on more traditional performance measures such as clicks and view time. The studentship would be dedicated to investigating ways to delivering this.

Whilst my first degree is in Media Production and I initially worked in Radio, my career ended up being in Business Psychology where I have specialised in employee selection, assessment and engagement. This research area sits nicely at the Venn intersect of my interests so it was not a difficult decision to apply, especially as I was excited at the prospect of having time allocated to working with the BBC again by way of the placement.

Early on in the studentship however, I sat in on a presentation given by a couple of members of an earlier cohort on their placements. It didn’t seem that their skills and abilities were well used and I was left with an impression of it being not much more than a work experience. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I just need to get it over and done with and frankly, I hadn’t expected to get much more out of it than 20 credits and if I were lucky, perhaps some useful connections to leverage when it came to conducting my research.

I’m pleased to say that this has not been the case. It soon became apparent that my experience was going to be very different to what I’d heard about from 2 students whose experiences were perhaps the unfortunate exception to the rule. My industry supervisors engaged with me right from the start, setting up regular meetings which alternated between discussing their work and my studies. They sought my input on various projects which entailed everything from peer review to internal presentation of data analysis and made me feel valued for my contributions.

It probably helped that I started the studentship when my industry supervisors were part way through creating a Human Values inventory questionnaire which could be used to support several objectives such as helping to design values led ideation workshops through to assessing deliverables in terms of facilitating achievements of values aligned aspirations. My working history imbued me with directly relevant and transferable skills, giving me the confidence to review the work in progress and proffer constructive feedback which was granted more than lip-service consideration. This marked an unofficial start to working towards my placement.

Soon after, a section of the inventory was being tailored to measure alignment to some of the values in a workplace setting, specifically around ‘Belonging to a Group’ and ‘Receiving Recognition’. I could draw parallels with my previous work in the field of Employee Engagement, on measuring attitudes towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and again, I was encouraged to provide input towards survey items. Where this differed however was the intention behind the tool to engender self-reflection at time of answering, perhaps to prompt discussion with immediate teams and line-managers where values were not being met rather than analysis of responses at an aggregate level as is more typical in Employee Engagement surveys.

Early in the second semester, the placement was formally kicked off and I was able to be more involved in several short studies:

Study 1 (n: 153) sought attitudes from participants on BBC iPlayer’s capacity to fulfil their values using a 5-point Likert scale and used open questions to seek examples of programmes in each of the values areas (although platforms were often suggested as well, e.g. YouTube being posited for ‘Growing Myself’). This provided some insight into the values considered less well served plus an indication of group score differences relating to gender. There were some clear winners among programmes with ‘Blue Planet’ being listed most often by far for facilitating ‘Explore the World’.

Study 2 (n: 1,147) was a very short follow up survey where participants were provided with 20 programmes to rate in terms of their ability to facilitate each of the values. I helped to select the programmes based on a combination of recent ratings and output of Study 1 in an attempt to present a range of popular genres to increase the likelihood of the participant watching them. I was given autonomy over the analysis and presented our findings across the 2 studies to an internal R&D monthly sectional meeting which included the Head of Applied Research.

Study 3 (n: 15) took a big step from my comfort zone in the form of a in-depth interview on attitudes towards personalisation online. This is the first study I have been involved in where we are actively seeking to publish the findings – wish us luck!

Along the way, I have also volunteered to take part in studies conducted in other areas of BBC R&D. One (Orchestra Surround Sound) involved calibrating multiple devices (e.g. computer, phone, tablet) to create a more interactive and engaging experience with an orchestra which enabled participants to experiment with sound placement and volume. Another involved evaluating room acoustic representation in binaural spatial audio (Polymersive Reverb). Another sound specific study (Soft Clipper listening tests) related to software designed to address sound distortion as part of the BBC’s upgrade of FM transmitters. I also participated in a critical evaluation of R1 Relax and attended a workshop discussing benefits and ethical implications of applying AI&ML to thumbnail selection for programme representation. The latter was really helpful for picking up pointers on focus group facilitation (particularly in a remote setting).

As a panel member in a facilitated discussion group run by the BBC R&D Diversity & Inclusion working group which is driving a range of initiatives to identify and address challenges in this space, I shared what I considered to be challenges and benefits of my neuro divergence in the workplace. On another occasion, I participated in Hybrid Meetings User Testing, providing feedback on any issues or potential policies from my disability perspective. As much as this was another opportunity to network, it provided me a platform through which to advocate.

The work I have participated in, both that allocated by my industry supervisors and that which I have volunteered for, has been beneficial in a number of ways. Among other things, it has:

      • given me an idea of the scope of experimentation that the BBC has the resource to conduct,
      • helped me learn and practice research skills I am less comfortable with, particularly around qualitative rather than quantitative approaches,
      • given me some ideas as to how I might conduct some of my own research in the future,
      • provided me with some findings directly relevant to my research question,
      • cemented a strong working relationship with my industry supervisors to the extent that I feel a part of (and meaningful contributor to) the wider team rather than an adjunct.

A challenge with such a large organisation with many initiatives vying for attention seems to be that it can sometimes be hard to get traction for a new idea or initiative. However, many staff are still working remotely so I am not in a position to conclude if it is the nature of the organisation or a product of working in isolation that on occasion, it has seemed that proposing a cross team study has initially been akin to pushing against an opening door only to end up in a room called limbo.

On the other side, a benefit of the scale of my industry partner is reach when it comes to recruiting study participants. I was really impressed with the speed with which we were able to reach target completion rates on several occasions. This said, I have learned not to take this for granted as I have been aware of situations where colleagues have found recruitment much more arduous, so consideration still needs to be given to sampling, targeting and study appeal.

It seems almost impossible to reflect on anything that has occurred in the last couple of years without making reference to COVID19 related impacts. In my case, it has meant that there has been far less face-to-face time, but I don’t believe that this has been too detrimental as, prior to commencing the studentship, I had worked mainly from home for some years. This said, I was finally able to visit the offices towards the end of last year and a tour of the facilities has revealed options for study approaches that whilst potentially beneficial, now seem perhaps indulgent because in my mindset, the location is so novel to me.

When the placement started (and when it will end) has a very blurred timeline, it certainly hasn’t consisted of a discreet 3 month full or 6 month part time block which comes with the potential to over-commit but also comes with the potential to forget a genuine partnership throughout the course of study.

To conclude, I have gained a lot more from the placement than I had initially expected. I’ve had facetime with people well placed to support my research in the future and importantly to me, I’ve felt that I have made meaningful contributions throughout rather than (virtually) turning up in order to tick a box.

 

Broadening Horizons in the Horizon Scanning Team

post by Charlotte Lenton (2020 cohort)

The Possibilities Were Endless

The industry partner for my PhD is the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) which is a member-based organisation working with organisations throughout the rail industry to improve railways in the UK. RSSB has vast connections with industry organisations throughout the sector which meant I could have pretty much undertaken any rail-related role in a whole host of companies to get first-hand experience of what it’s like to work in rail. So why did I decide to stick to an office-based position within RSSB?

In December 2020, the small but excellent, Horizon Scanning team of two at RSSB kindly came along to an online event that I organised with other members of the CDT to talk about their work and techniques used in horizon scanning. This presentation was well received by my colleagues and left me wanting to know more about how this technique works in practice, as well as how the outcomes benefit organisations within the rail sector. It was quite opportune that the team would be starting to do some horizon scanning work as part of the Rail Technical Strategy (RTS) refresh in the summer of 2021 which was around the time that I would be starting my placement. The RTS was the main industry document which helped to shape my PhD proposal throughout Year One of my studies. Following the initial training I was allocated as the lead student analysis for the RTS ‘Easy-to-Use’ horizon scanning work.

Horizon Scanning: Thinking the Unthinkable

Very few people are excited by the prospect of change, especially when the potential changes and their impact are largely unknown. As a horizon scanning analysis my job was to think about changes and the various implications that these could have on the rail sector. I was to explore the horizon for early signs of potential changes, collate information about these emergent changes, and think about how these changes could make a difference to the industry. In this sense, I was to think about the unthinkable and process this information in a way that would be helpful for managers to begin to anticipate the future.

Taking the RTS roadmap for the Easy-to-Use priority as a starting point, I began to search the internet for key terms relating to the different topics. Anything I found that I thought was an indication of something new, a change, a confirmation or just background information on one of the topics, I logged in an online spreadsheet. Each data point collected was then reviewed on a weekly basis at a sensemaking meeting where I discussed the recorded items with the horizon scanning principal. This was a useful exercise for us both as it helped him to get an idea of the types of things that I was finding during the scanning process, but it also helped me to justify my reasoning for logging the data points depending on their categorisation.

(Image: The current roadmap for the Easy-to-Use priority of the Rail Technical Strategy)

The Rules: There Are No Rules

Unlike academic research, the validity of the information source was not subject to much, if any, scrutiny providing it was an indication of a novel idea or potential change. The example that was used during training, which will always stick in my mind, was that an idea expressed in a blog post by a man sitting in his living room at 2am in Lagos should not be discounted just because of the source if the idea is an indication of a potential change on the horizon. Other sources with similar ideas may be found further down the line which validate or reject the ideas posted by this late-night blogger. So, for the purposes of information gathering even this type of blog post should be logged in the database alongside sources such as academic journals, newspaper articles, books, and television programmes.

Adapting to this unrestrictive method for capturing information and knowledge was a particular challenge for me as it went against everything I have been taught to do as part of my academic training. I was so accustomed to only using and trusting sources that are deemed valid by the academic community that I found it hard to log sources that felt ‘invalid’ as they were merely the opinion of one person in a blog that only a few people have read. This led me back to thinking about a module I had previously completed as part of my Masters in Gender Studies. In this module we discussed the inequalities that exist within the production and sharing of knowledge because of how the academic world is geared towards only listening to voices that have been validated and verified by our peers. Why do the comments of a professor from a top UK university matter more to the academic community than the words of a Black Feminist activist talking about her first-hand experiences of racial and gender discrimination? Whilst I am not suggesting that the academic community should start referencing every other person that posts their thoughts and opinions online, perhaps we, as academics, should begin to take a more flexible approach like the techniques of horizon scanning in our search for knowledge to gain a better understanding of the world outside of the four walls of academia.

Writing For a Different Audience

Towards the end of the placement, I was asked to start writing a report to be disseminated throughout the rail sector which highlights some key areas for potential change in the future. Unlike writing for a university assessment or an academic paper, this type of reporting needed to short and snappy whilst consolidating the evidence from many data points found during the scanning phases. In one sense it was quite like writing for social media where you must get your point across in as few characters as possible whilst still making an impact on your audience with a statement about how these potential changes could impact their work or service.

I think this type of writing is just as important as writing for journals and books for academics as social media can be used as a vehicle for disseminating research beyond the fourth wall and into the public domain in a more familiar and understandable way. I am not suggesting that we should all start doing Tik Tok dance videos to disseminate our research, but it does seem that social media remains an underutilised platform for communication with wider audiences. It is also only recently that I have started seeing webinars and training sessions being offered through the university to train PGR on how to communicate their research through social media. Needless to say, I will be booking myself on to one of the sessions imminently!

Broadening My Horizons

Overall, I feel that the placement with RSSB has given me excellent first-hand experience of what it is like to work within a busy team of researchers in an industry setting. I have been encouraged to think outside of the box and change my perspective in terms of what is considered ‘valid’ knowledge. The practical experience of using Horizon Scanning techniques and writing for different audiences has also improved my transferable skills available to me throughout and at the completion of my PhD.

I cannot thank Guy, Sharon, Mel, and the team enough for welcoming me into the world of R&D at RSSB with open arms and treating me to such a valuable set of experiences throughout my placement.