Interview with Romana Burgess
Romana is a second year CDT student in the Engineering stream. Before the CDT she completed an integrated Masters in Mathematics at the University of Exeter. Her PhD project uses webcam footage to explore markers of mental health in mother/baby interactions.
You can find out more about Romana's work here.
What did you do before the CDT? How has that helped you during your CDT experience so far?
I did an integrated Masters in Maths at the University of Exeter, which was really far detached from the CDT. There wasn’t a huge amount of overlap, but the main thing I think was the programming which I did as part of my degree and which I’m now doing in my current project. My programming training was useful during the app development module in particular, as well as a couple of the other group project modules last year. In my undergrad, I did a bit of bio-modelling as well which was helpful to understand some of the systems in the Foundations of Health and Wellbeing module.
'I liked the idea of the CDT taught year which would introduce me to a range of health concepts and then I’d be able to find something I could focus on and that my background would be helpful for'
What motivated you to apply for the programme?
I knew I wanted to do a PhD, and I knew I didn’t want to do pure maths, I wanted to do some sort of application, and I knew I probably wanted it to be biology based and also something that was meaningful and useful. I couldn’t find a specific PhD project that was being advertised that I liked. So I liked the idea of the CDT taught year which would introduce me to a range of health concepts and then I’d be able to find something I could focus on and that my background would be helpful for.
How did you find the application process?
I found it quite easy, I found the interview day in particular to be quite stress-free. It was my first time coming to Bristol so that was nice. The interview was pretty standard and I liked having to do a presentation on a digital health device because it was really different to other interview days that I’d been to. It was my first introduction to trying to find a digital health device as well, so it was interesting to think that these were the kinds of things I’d be learning about.
'I’d only been dealing with numbers beforehand, so I’d never done interviews with participants or online ethnographic research, looking into online populations or talking with actual people before.'
What skills have you developed during the CDT so far? What skills are you developing now?
The main thing I’d say I learned in the taught year was qualitative research skills, obviously I’d only been dealing with numbers beforehand, so I’d never done interviews with participants or online ethnographic research, looking into online populations or talking with actual people before. There were a lot of group projects which was great, and I really enjoyed them, and with that came some design stuff as well which was all new to me. Something that was really challenging, but which I did develop a lot was presenting. We did a lot of presentations of powerpoints and posters, even really impromptu ones sometimes. In the case studies module sometimes I’d have to present on something with only 5 minutes to prepare. So even though I don’t really like presenting I probably did improve on it a lot. Now in my first research year I’m learning how to present things to other academics, even if it’s just in my supervisory team. I’m also developing my skills in independent thinking a lot. I have a meeting with my supervisors every 2 weeks, but if I’ve done what we said I’d do within a week it’s up to me to think what I want to do next and what’s interesting to me.
How have you found transitioning out of the first year into being a research student?
Generally I’m quite independent in the way I work and I find it quite easy to motivate myself. So I don’t mind getting up and learning new things by myself, I’ve always preferred that. It helps that I’m genuinely interested in my research outcomes so even if I don’t know a software that I have to start learning or reading papers that I’ve never heard of, it’s challenging but I still want to do it because I’m interested.
'You absolutely don’t have to know what your project will be when you apply. Its more important to sit back and enjoy all the opportunities that there are in the first year with all the different speakers that come in and talk from different companies. Its so interesting just to listen to what they have to say and you can have your mind broadened to all these different possibilities.'
How did you go about developing your PhD project idea and finding your supervisory team? What support and resources were available to you to do this?
We had research project workshops throughout the year where different academics would come together and brainstorm project ideas and my project came from one of those. I actually missed the workshop that my project came from so I didn’t hear about it until we got the collated list of projects created in the workshops through in June. I narrowed it down to about 4 projects from the list and then I spent a while discussing with Ian Craddock (course director) which was best suited to me. I had a zoom call with the main academic who pitched the idea because she had this dataset that she wanted to do work with, we discussed in more detail what the dataset was and what I could do with it. She was a psychologist so we together approached someone in computer science and we had a few meetings the three of us to explore options for the project, but there was no pressure it was just a lot of brainstorming before we decided to move forward with it.
What’s it like living in Bristol? What do you get up to when you’re not studying (outside of COVID)?
I hadn’t lived in Bristol before the CDT and I moved here just before the course started. I live near the harbourside which is a lovely, calm spot but close to the centre of Bristol where there is a lot going on. I like it where there are climate protestors on College Green and I love walking around the shops and restaurants. In my spare time I do a lot of cooking and baking.
What advice would you give to people considering applying for the course?
I think the thing I’ve been asked most by people thinking about applying for the course was ‘do you have to know what your project is when you apply?’ I would say, no you absolutely don’t have to know what your project will be when you apply and I don’t think anybody really did for at least 8 months. Its more important to just sit back and enjoy all the opportunities that there are in the first year with all the different speakers that come in and talk from different companies. Its so interesting just to listen to what they have to say and you can have your mind broadened to all these different possibilities. Make the most of all the different talks and visits and people that you get to meet, and project will just come to you in time.