You spend weeks locked in a dark room, watching students as they carry out fingerprint recognition tasks (yes, it is indeed a positively riveting experience), you long for the day when it’s finally over…
After the buzz and excitement of New York, the next stop on my agenda was Washington, D. C. Lisa, Francisco, and I were going to attend the 1st International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management, a brilliant opportunity for us to introduce our projects and meet new people.
As you can probably guess, we also used this occasion to explore the political capital of the States a bit: Washington Zoo (which is free), some of the Smithsonian museums (also mostly free), the impressive government buildings along the National Mall: White House, Lincoln Memorial, US Capitol, Archives, various war memorials. Like New York, it felt a bit unreal seeing all those world-famous sights with your own eyes – although the heat and humidity quickly drove home the message that this was for real!
The conference itself was a great experience. It lasted four days, and consisted of talks as well as panel discussions. The keynote speech by Brandon Mayfield was one of my personal highlights, as his story served as a powerful reminder of the impact that errors in forensic science have on people’s lives. We saw some great presentations on current research in fingerprints, digital forensics, DNA, legal studies…. You could also notice a growing interest in human factors – although it did seem to me as though the main focus was on studying human factors in order to reduce or eliminate their effect on human performance, rather than to understand the underlying processes and examine possible advantages of the seemingly irrational and inefficient approach our brains take to information processing and decision-making.
I also got the chance to present my first poster at an international conference! The poster session was in the afternoon, and despite an interesting concurrent panel session we got to speak to a lot of people, and got great feedback on our work. Overall, people at the symposium seemed very friendly and approachable, and we made a lot of good contacts for feedback and collaborations.
And so, buzzing with ideas and unusual doses of sunlight, I headed back to the UK to face the probation review, and prepare for the next trip: PhD summer school in Lausanne…
It cannot be denied, the life of a PhD student is tough.
As I’m writing this, my desk is covered in papers involving calculus (something I thought I’d seen the last of when I did my A levels a……few…..years ago). I’m simultaneously analysing the data of my first experiment according to Signal Detection Theory, recruiting and testing for my second experiment, and coding the third … and also working on my probation review report (if you were a pantomime audience you’d all be going “Awwwww, poor Silke” right about now).
But that’s not all! All of the above is just my ‘main job’ – but academia is so much more! You probably noticed that the INTREPID gang is pretty active when it comes to research dissemination, but when you’re doing a PhD your department also wants you to get involved. Sooo last week I gave a talk on my project to the Vision and Language lab, and tomorrow I’m doing a double act, presenting my research in a talk and on a poster to the School of Psychology at Café Psychologie, an annual event for all first-year PhD students to introduce themselves and their research to their department. I’m really glad to be participating in these activities, as they provide me with the opportunity to receive valuable feedback from psychologists and vision scientists. It’s something that is really important to me, as I feel like over the past months I’ve been mainly involved with the forensic and fingerprint community – who’ve been amazingly encouraging and inspiring, but coming from a visual perception background I also want to know what people from that area think of my approach to this project. This seems to be one of the challenges in interdisciplinary research – getting the balance right.
Whilst I’m analysing, testing, coding, writing and presenting, I also need to make sure that my research skills are up to scratch. If I want my research to be innovative, I need to make sure I keep up to date with the latest technologies to see if I can benefit from them. Now, if you study visual perception one thing you’ll be spending a lot of time doing is coding experiments. Many people in this area use MATLAB and the designated Psychtoolbox, but over the past 10 years or so Jon Peirce at Nottingham University has made incredible progress developing Psychopy, a Python-based application researchers can use to present stimuli and collect data. One great advantage of Psychopy (and Python) is that they’re license-free, which provides researchers with more flexibility to take their research out of the lab. Towards the end of April, Francisco and I attended a 3-day workshop on Psychopy, run by Jon Peirce himself at the stunning campus of the University of Nottingham. It was an intense three days, we got through the basics of programming to coding our first experiment by Day Two, as well as brief introductions to data analysis, graphs, image processing, some general Python code, all the while fuelled by probably more coffee than I’ve ever had in a lifetime 😉 Overall a tough but rewarding experience: not only did I learn much about coding, Python and Psychopy but I also met some great people.
But don’t be fooled: doing a PhD involves more than just enjoying the sun by a beautiful lake and drinking tonnes of coffee. When I’m not doing workshops, preparing research presentations, writing reports, coding experiments, testing participants or analysing data (this is starting to feel like ‘The 12 days of Christmas’), myself and the other INTREPID guys are being trained in Forensic Theories and Skills. Now that is a really difficult and boring training module.
Yep, you should really feel sorry for us. They’re forcing us to attend fire investigation demonstrations. Where they set a furnished container on fire to teach us about reading the fire scene, preservation and collection of evidence…
Fire investigation demos involving Jack the accelerant-sniffer dog, who has to wear teeny tiny boots to protect his paws from glass!
It simply cannot be denied: The life of a PhD student is really, really tough…
PS: Thanks to Thalassa for sharing her great quality pics with us (the low-res ones can be credited to my phone..)
Looking forward to: Crime Scene Investigation Practical; brightening up the garden (like a grown-up)
Listening to: Bark & Baker; Seu Jorge
Reading: J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings; Terry Pratchett – A Blink of the Screen
Last April, as I was hunting for PhD projects around Europe from a tiny spa town in Northern Germany, I came across an intriguing ad on the EURAXESS webpage. It was for a multidisciplinary project at the University of Leicester, where I would be using Signal Detection Theory to model the visual search strategies of fingerprint experts during examination and verification. I knew it was the one for me; reading through the required qualifications and expertise listed in the ad felt like reading through my own CV.
I decided to investigate some more, and learned that the project I was interested in was part of INTREPID forensics, an EU-funded interdisciplinary venture supporting innovative research applicable to the forensic sciences. Two of the projects matched my particular research interests and background: modelling visual search strategies, and investigating cognitive biases in fingerprint examination. With my mind made up that these were the projects for me, I spent a few weeks building my application, annoying friends and family with requests for proofreading and feedback – all the while warning my previous supervisors about possible reference requests – and finally sent it off with a giddy feeling. [Read more…]