How my PhD in the UK prepared me to become a leader in the field of neurotech
Davide, from Italy, is a global finalist for the Business and Innovation Alumni Award 2022. Five years after completing his PhD in Brain Computer Interfaces at the University of Essex he now works as a lead data science at a reputable neurotech company in Boston, USA.
‘When I first started working in brain computer interfaces, I thought these devices were just for science fiction’
When I first started working in brain computer interfaces, I thought these devices were just for science fiction. Five years later, after completing my PhD, there were already several companies commercialising them. And now I work for one of them.
‘The University of Essex has one of the leading centres in the world in the area of brain computer interfaces’
I moved to the UK to study for three main reasons.
Firstly, I was fascinated by the topic of brain-computer interfaces, and the UK (and the University of Essex in particular) has one of the leading centres in the world in this area.
Secondly, I wanted to improve my English. The best way to do this is to move to a country where English is the first language. It forces you to speak it.
Thirdly, I wanted to complete my education abroad. Even though I had offers in Italy to pursue my PhD, I chose the UK for its dynamic and stimulating academic environment.
‘I loved the support of people who, like me, didn’t speak perfect English from day one’
My supervisors, my department - the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering (CSEE) - and the whole of the University of Essex made me feel welcome from the beginning. They supported me through so much. From studentships to extracurricular activities such as courses on academic writing, entrepreneurship, and teamworking. I also worked, outside of my PhD, as a graduate lab assistant and a part-time lecturer. I particularly loved the support of people who, like me, didn’t speak perfect English from day one.
‘The University of Essex is a true gem for inclusivity’
There were many highlights of my studies in the UK. I’ll stick to three for now.
- The passion that all people in the university put into what they do. Making the students the centre of all of their activities. And ensuring they are well supported;
- The opportunities for research and extracurricular activities, from funding students’ research or their travel when setting up a business;
- The internationalism. The University of Essex is a true gem for inclusivity, and I love how many international students there are.
‘My PhD research showed how the brain computer interfaces I developed can make groups more accurate when making decisions’
Brain computer interfaces are devices that capture your brain activity through special sensors called electrodes and use computer algorithms to extract information from them. In my PhD, I developed brain computer interfaces capable of understanding how confident individuals are when making a decision. My research also showed how these devices can make group decision-making more accurate. For each decision, they help the group identify the most objectively confident team members who they can trust.
These brain computer interfaces can have an important role to play in critical scenarios, such as defence and medical settings, as they allow groups to be more accurate in decision-making. The confidence that the brain computer interface estimates from brain activity is more reliable than the estimates individuals may report after each decision they make. This is because many people are either under- or over-confident in particular situations.
‘My PhD prepared me to become a leader in brain computer interfaces’
My PhD provided me with the critical skills I need for my career, from the scientific rigour required to innovate in cutting-edge research areas such as neurotechnology, to the ability to wear many hats when developing a product. I also learned to refine my soft skills, which are so vital in so many contexts. For example, time management, working with deadlines and communication skills.
But beyond that, more technically, my PhD prepared me to become a leader in brain computer interfaces, and, through joint research projects, connected me with other leaders across the world.
‘I now work for a neurotech company in Boston in the USA developing brain computer interfaces’
I’ve done a couple of things since I finished my PhD. First, as a senior research officer, I stayed at the University of Essex to continue my research on brain computer interfaces for decision-making. Then I moved to Boston in the USA to take up a postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School. I worked there for two and a half years, developing algorithms to automatically diagnose dystonia - a neurological movement disorder - and improved the standard of related care threefold. In 2021, I joined Neurable, a neurotech company built on the principle that game-changing products are backed by top-notch science. In my role as lead data scientist there I develop brain computer interfaces that help users be more productive by tracking their brain activity and understanding when they lose focus or are about to burn out.
‘No matter how big your idea or dream is, don’t give up’
No matter how big your idea or dream is, don’t give up. Look for the tools and skills you need to make it real.