St Andrews + UVic PhD Scholarship on Machine Learning and Visualization

We are advertising a unique cross-continental opportunity to carry out cutting-edge research on Machine Learning and Information Visualization across two continents at two leading institutions, the University of St Andrews (Scotland) and the University of Victoria (Canada).

For administrative details, conditions and an initial description of the research see: the official Scholarship Announcement.

Supervision is collaborative between Dr Juan Ye and Uta Hinrichs (St Andrews) and myself (Miguel Nacenta–University of Victoria). Applications are accepted until June 30th, 2020. Feel free to drop me a line at nacenta at uvic dot ca if you want to discuss your application informally with me.

 

Postgraduate Supervision in the COVID19 Era (for Supervisors and Students)

I moved to the University of Victoria (Canada) in January, so I have since been working with my St Andrews PhD students remotely who, for a number of reasons, preferred not to move continents to Victoria with me. This means that we are quite used at the moment to work remotely.

Remote PGR supervision has its challenges, yet I believe it is important to acknowledge that the new constraints imposed by the virus, quarantines, social distancing etc. add an additional layer of complexity to the whole situation. I also believe that postgraduate students are likely to suffer the extraordinary situation particularly hard because with the additional burden to move to online teaching, supervisor’s energy and time will be in shorter supply. Here are just a few of my thoughts regarding remote supervision (first), and regarding supervising during quarantine (second).

Remote Supervision

I think it is important to acknowledge that remote supervision is harder than in-person supervision. For a number of reasons:

  1. It is harder to read the mood of people through a remote connection, even if there is video (this cuts both ways… I know that my students can sometimes tell that I’m in a bit of a mood). Without the ability to judge mood and attitude accurately it is harder to make the right calls regarding next steps, tone etc.
  2. I find that it is just that bit harder to be compassionate, empathetic and understanding when you are separated by a long distance and, perhaps more importantly, by a few hours in our daily cycle. I meet my students in the morning, since I’m 8 or 9 hours behind. This means that my students are mostly at the end of their days when I’m still full of energy; this has a significant effect.
  3. The serendipitous and opportunistic contacts that one has at work are important for students; if you cross them in the hallway, they know you are here, you know they are here. A quick question or two minute talk, or even a sentence might not only give each other acknowledgement of each other’s needs (“yes, I’ll get to read your chapter soon! I have not forgotten!”), but it might also save a significant amount of time if they don’t have to wait until the next meeting to get a little bit of help.
  4. The opportunistic encounters with other members of staff are also important for the students and for the supervisor in order to support the students. For example, that little bit of awareness of the member of the Systems Support Team who tells you that certain service will have to be down soon, or that a certain machine needs replacement.
  5. It simply is harder to critique, point out issues, discuss ideas that have a graphical substrate when you are connecting over video conference. I cannot count the number of times that I had to sketch something on paper and awkwardly held it in front of the camera, trying to point at different areas of the sketch, or the number of times that I tried to scroll on a document which is really just a shared desktop from the other side. This is a real issue in Computer Supported Collaborative Work that has not really been solved yet in the mainstream, despite the efforts of many in the CSCW community, including my mentors Saul Greenberg and Carl Gutwin.

Supervision in COVID19 times

Everything in the previous section applies to the current quarantine situation, sometimes amplified. And some aspects are new:

  1. Both supervisors and students are anxious, even if they are often not ready to admit it to themselves, much less to others. Being a PhD student is more often than not a difficult thing, with the justifiable stress and anxiety of academia and trying to prove oneself. Now imagine how this feels when you add the uncertainty of not being able to run experiments, have access to your usual materials, or having to go through extra hoops to just be able to do what is expected of you. Anxiety and extra work can be particularly damaging for deep work.
  2. Loneliness can be a real issue. Most people rely on looser or tighter communities for support. Postgrads who work remotely tend to find it much harder to find the motivation and energy to sustain focus and work without a group of peers. Self-isolation and social distancing is much more likely to wipe out these sources of peer-support than many other practices, probably because the value and perception of these networks is easy to underestimate.
  3. Some people’s life circumstances are being affected more than others. Being away from family, having to care for dependents, or even trying to help out the communities one belongs to (e.g., elderly residents in the same apartment building) can take a very significant toll on people’s time and energy.

Strategies and tools worth thinking about (for remote, COVID or both)

I have never been a perfect supervisor, but I try hard to do right by my students. Despite knowing that I can get much better at this, I believe that there are some obvious and not so obvious things that can work:

  1. Remember that we are all, above anything else, people. With our vulnerabilities and needs, good and bad moments. It is surprisingly easy to forget to be human, and caring and compassionate and just adopt a role as the conscientious student or the wise and driven supervisor as we interact with each other. Although it sounds obvious, make sure to start every contact with a sincere effort to relate, connect and care. This applies to both students and supervisors.
  2. I believe that it helps to know that it is normal to not be as productive remotely as you imagine you have been in the past. This is even more important within the current unprecedented circumstances. Procrastination and lack of focus is not just a matter of pure will (no matter how many times we convince ourselves that we can just “power through”) and achieving sufficient progress in research work is a constant challenge that we fight everyday, a problem never definitively solved. Therefore, if you did not have a good day, forgive yourself a bit, practice a bit of self-compassion, and reassure yourself that it will get better tomorrow.
  3. It helps to know that for most institutions, the top allegiance is to their students. Despite many people’s cynicism, I have found this to be consistently true throughout my experience (UVic is my 8th institution, not counting Microsoft Research). As a student you might be feeling very insecure about deadlines, regulations and funding. It is good to have some pressure to make sure that the work keeps moving on but, in my experience, an overwhelming majority of people in academia understand Hofstadter’s law, and institutions tend to know to be flexible when they need to be. You still have to do your best, but you will get some leeway.
  4. Listen extra hard. This applies to both sides of the supervision relationship. It is particularly hard to listen and connect when one is stressed and overloaded, so it is particularly important to remember to listen in these circumstances, and give each other the opportunity to share the challenges, problems and feelings arising.
  5. Communicate to your supervisor. They can help you. One of the harder tasks for a supervisor is to assess the state of mind of many of the students. As a student, it is tempting to try to present a flawless appearance of invulnerability and performance, but it is much better to actually share the challenge and the feelings. This, of course, relies on the trust invested in the relationship, and it flows in both directions. Although difficult to do, I think it pays off to share the challenges and vulnerabilities that we experience as supervisors as well.
  6. For supervisors: It helps to have great colleagues (who can be proxies) and are physically closer to the students. This is more relevant to the more general issue of remote supervision than to the current quarantine situation, but it can help as well. I have been lucky to have good collaborators still in St Andrews (call out tothe  amazing Juan Ye, Ozgur Agkun, Alice Toniolo, Uta Hinrichs and Aaron Quigley) who are good points of contact for the students when they need to. They can also supply a bit of that co-located experience that is so reassuring.
  7. It is helpful for both student and supervisor to acknowledge that working remotely requires additional “meta-work” to work smoothly. That is, it takes time and work to figure out how to work together more efficiently. This can take the form of extra thinking about how to best schedule meetings, figuring out substitutes for support, or even spending some time learning and finding new tools and technology.
  8. Some new tools are actually quite amazing, and can help (and they keep evolving!) Although I personally find some of the new communication trends such as Slack quite overwhelming and difficult to keep up on top of (too many “channels” of information to keep track of, when considered on top of e-mail, which is still king for me), some other tools can be fantastic. Sometimes one has to even remind itself to use these tools, even if we know that they will work better. My two favourite examples right now are miro, a collaborative diagramming tool that works well when used synchronously with a source of audio on the side (typically Skype for me), and opening a shared Google Doc when brainstorming ideas, which I found can be transformative.

Some of you might have different tips and ideas. I’m sure I have missed a lot here, and I can learn a lot more. Even better, some of you might disagree with me. In any of these cases, I’ll be very happy if you let me know through a comment or by e-mail.

iVoLVER system wins Best Demo Jury Award at ACM ISS 2017

The iVoLVER system (iVoLVER.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk), created by Gonzalo Méndez and designed by Gonzalo and myself received on Thursday 19 the ACM ISS Best Demo Jury Award during the conference, which took place at Brighton, UK.

iVoLVER is a web-based visual programming environment that enables anyone to transform visualizations that the find in-the-wild (e.g., in a poster or a newspaper) into new visualizations that are more useful for them.

Because iVoLVER is a fully web-based visual tool you can try it out yourself (works best with Chrome). Just go to http://ivolver.cs.st-andrews.ac.uk and click on “try it”. We are also working on expanding it and we will be releasing an API version shortly.

The ACM Interactive Surfaces and Spaces conference takes place yearly in different locations. Next year it will take place in Tokyo, Japan. The conference is a premier venue for work that studies how people interact in smart spaces and surfaces and how to design and engineering solutions for novel interfaces.

Books for a good PhD start

A research career is a complex career. It involves many skills and knowledge that are not necessarily related to the specific topic that you choose to investigate.

In my experience, students just before of at the beginning of their PhD research (at the beginning of their research careers) are often quite disconnected from the actual skills and background that will make them successful. This is why I try to supply my students with some of the knowledge that, sooner or later, they will need to apply. To help with this, I have selected four books that all my students get at the beginning of their PhDs (to read in their free time). Here is the selection, and why I selected each book. Note: I’d love you to share other books you think are valuable at this stage (use the comments below).

 

content1. The Craft of Research (Booth, Colomb, Williams)

Science/Engineering students often think that writing is the boring part of the job. Most of them realise that they have to do it, and some might even know that they have to do it well to be successful. However, telling a student that they have to get better at writing is not the best approach. In the best case, they already know that they have to do it, and in the worse, they might start hating it.

Instead, I like to consider writing (of academic papers and reports) as thinking on paper. It is often not until I have written the last bit of a paper (e.g., the discussion section) that I fully understand the research that I have done, the implications, and the value of it. Of course, the research is mostly already in your mind (and in your code, data, etc), but putting it on paper takes you to the next step: you can communicate it to the world and, perhaps most importantly, to yourself.

And this is what this book is about: setting up questions, understanding the problem, structuring a solution, all mediated through writing. A particular favorite of mine is the bit about making arguments; being able to make a claim and support it with evidence in a convincing way is one of those things that students think they know, but only learn after supervision, much experience and, perhaps, reading this book.

Cover of the book "The Elements of Style" 2. The Elements of Style (Strunk & White)

Once you know why you are writing, you need to know how. Although some authors think that this book might not be as good as everybody else thinks it is, it takes many students out of some of the worst habits in writing, namely:

  • Writing to look smart.
  • Writing without thinking of the reader (e.g., long sentences).
  • Writing to fill in the space (lack of brevity).

Although the grammar advice might be somewhat antiquated and not always completely correct, the rest of the book, in particular the parts about style, helped me significantly improve my writing (although I certainly don’t claim mastery!). I think this book is particularly useful for students who are not native speakers of English and who come from traditions where clarity and brevity is not as central as in the English speaking scientific community (I’m from Spain, and I’m in shock most of the time I have to read or review a thesis in Spanish).

The most important point of the book might be summarised in a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal: If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter. Well, a student should have the time, so the text should be shorter while keeping the crucial information. It takes time and effort, but readers (and markers) will be happier, the world will waste less paper, and the paper/dissertation will be more likely to be read and used by others.

Cover of the book "The A PhD is not enough!" 3. A PhD is not enough! (Feibelman)

Very often students lack context. They might know that they want to do research, they might even know that they like research. But what else is involved? Why would a PhD be useful? What does it get you? Most importantly, what does it NOT get you?

This book might be a bit harsh to start on (sometimes reality is a bit hard), but it provides a nice glimpse on the world of research and highlights much of what really becomes the focus of what you do as a researcher and academic. The bad news is that there is a lot more of politics, strategy, and marketing in this job than what we all expect when we start. The good news is that you can be prepared for it, and might even get to enjoy some of those bits. In any case, and from my personal opinion, being in research is awesome, but it is better to be ready for what it requires from you.

Note: there are other similar/related books about research and academia that are worth mentioning and reading (e.g., this, this, and this), but perhaps not strictly necessary at the beginning of a PhD).

index 4. Getting Things Done (Allen)

So, what is really required from a PhD? Effective work and perseverance. Most people in academia know that you don’t have to be a genius to get a PhD. Gosh, you don’t even have to get the best or most novel ideas. But your ability to work hard, avoid procrastination, and persevere will determine the chances of being successful in your PhD and of being able to take your career further.

Although there is a lot of crap in the self-help and productivity literature, this does not mean that it is better to ignore it all. This book describes my favorite system, and although it is not perfect and I still work really really long hours, it has helped me enormously. This might not be the best system for productivity that there is, or be the best system for everyone, but at least is honest, well explained, and feasible. I’m a fan.

The reality of a PhD is that, if students think they are busy during their undergrads or MSc, the demands on time will only keep increasing. This is certainly true after you have become a doctor. If you don’t like GTD, you better find something else!

 

Have you come across other books that you think are useful? I’d love to compile a list with your suggestions, and I might even add a book or two to my list!

PhD Studentship on Perceptual Gaze-contingent Displays at St Andrews (with me)

I’m looking for a student to work with me in St Andrews for the next few years (fully funded). The topic is gaze-contingent displays. I’m looking for someone with a Computer Science background that has an interest in perception and visualization, and a big curiosity about human perception and what we can do to enhance it. Please, visit the studentship offer, and send me an e-mail if you are interested! (deadlines for the studentship are soon, so don’t delay!!).

New Alberta Contemporaries Exhibition Showcases work by Lindsay MacDonald (+ J. Brosz + S. Carpendale + me)

The New Alberta Contemporaries 06.15 to 08.29.2012

The new Alberta Contemporaries is the inaugural exhibition of the Esker Foundation, in Calgary. The Esker foundation is the largest privately funded, non-commercial art gallery in Calgary, and Lindsay MacDonald -who I had the pleasure of working with- got invited to exhibit our collaborative piece (with John Brosz) which features an elevator that knows where you are looking at. This means that besides the prize that she already got, she also got to give an artist talk at an amazing venue.

I was not able to attend the inauguration party, but I am incredibly happy to see Lindsay get a little bit of the attention that she deserves. I am really happy to have been able to collaborate with such talented people.

If you happen to be in Calgary, you might want to check the exhibition; it’s there until August 29th and it is free and open to the public.