Reflections from placement at The Alan Turing Institute

Date: 03/01/2018

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Tao Wang is an SCDTP funded student working on a PhD in Economics at the University of Southampton, and is part of the Population Change, Health and Wellbeing Thematic Cluster Pathway. His PhD examines eating disorders over online social networks. Tao is currently on a placement year at The Alan Turing Institute.

My aim through this blog is to talk about my experience on doing the placement, and reflect on what I have been doing as a tool to monitor my own development, but also for use by others having similar experiences.

My research

I will start by introducing my PhD research project, as it motivated me to apply for the placement. My project is studying eating disorders over online social networks, aiming at repositioning questions related to environment, behaviour and public health to the domain of social network platforms, such as Twitter, by emphasizing the social, rather than just clinical, dimension of life-style related illnesses like eating disorders. This is an interdisciplinary research project, involving knowledge from multiple disciplines such as public health, network science, economics and computer science. Funded by the ESRC South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership and the Institute for Life Sciences (IfLS), we have built a core team working across disciplines: two of my supervisors have a background in economics, one has a background in physics and my background is in computer science.

Getting a placement

I knew about the Turing Institute when I was attending the Web Search and Data Mining (WSDM) 2017 conference to present our previous paper in Cambridge. From the introduction by the Director of the Institute, Prof. Andrew Blake, I learnt that the Turing Institute is the United Kingdom’s national institute for data sciences and the research undertaken there is directly related to my own research. I was curious to see if I could learn anything more about their research and job opportunities from visiting their website. I noticed that the Institute was seeking to attract doctoral students to spend an “enrichment” year there. I thought this could be a good opportunity for me to enter a more evenly balanced and multi-faceted environment, to further develop my research interests and acquire a deeper understanding and appreciation of the possibilities in my research field. After I fully understood what the enrichment programme was, I asked my supervisors for their opinions. Surprisingly, all of my supervisors thought this programme would be good for me and they were willing to fully support my application.

With the consent of my supervisor team, I started to apply for the placement. I did some research on the strategic aims of the Institute and tried to connect these aims with my own research project and interests in filling application forms. Luckily, I heard that the Institute would like to make me a placement offer and they contacted my department to ask for a confirmation. Although the communication process lasted long due to visa issues, I finally got the official offer with the continuous efforts from my supervisor Antonella and Emma, the Training Coordinator at the Turing Institute.

My experience so far

What exactly is my placement? This placement is quite special as it allows me to continuing to work towards my PhD. Although the same project, the Institute offers a unique opportunity to undertake research in a multidisciplinary environment. A range of training opportunities such as lectures, seminars and workshops given by field leaders in research, government and industry are held every week, which have broadened my horizons and inspired me a lot. Another unique feature at the Turing Institute is the reading groups which bring researchers with similar research interests together to discuss state-of-the-art papers. These groups are very useful for me to learn the current research trends and the discussion with others enables me to know better how these research can connect with my own project. I have really enjoyed my experience at the Turing Institute in the past three months, and would highly recommend it to other PhD students.


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