ICAI interview with Evy van Weelden: Finding your way in the PhD maze

Corona has made it more difficult for PhD students to find each other, while this group benefits a lot from being part of a community. Evy van Weelden started her PhD in 2020 and only saw her fellow PhD students half a year later in person. ICAI is now organizing its first PhD social meetup. Van Weelden: ‘A PhD is like a maze in which you have to find your way. I feel like I could learn a lot from PhD candidates that are in their third or fourth year.’

Evy van Weelden

Evy van Weelden is a PhD candidate within MasterMinds Lab.

MasterMinds Lab is a collaboration between Tilburg University, Fontys Hogescholen, ROC Tilburg, Actemium, CastLab, Interpolis, Marel, MultiSIM BV, Municipality of Tilburg, Port of Rotterdam, Royal Netherlands Air Force, SpaceBuzz, TimeAware and WPG Zwijsen.

The research reported in this study is funded by the MasterMinds project, part of the RegionDeal Mid- and West-Brabant, and is co-funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Municipality of Tilburg.

Working on flight simulations with the Royal Netherlands Air Force and MultiSIM sounds exciting. What amazed you so far?

‘Before I started I had some experience with virtual reality (VR), but when I first tried the flight simulation I was very impressed with how realistic it was. The company MultiSIM models PC-7 aircrafts exactly how they are in real life. Some people are prone to simulator sickness, but I’m not, so it was very fun. You feel very present in that visual environment, which is very important for the motivation of learning. There are different levels why this simulation is so realistic: the sounds, the environment and if you put pressure on the stick or throttle, the response of the aircraft is exactly how it would be in real life.’

What exactly are you researching?

‘My project focuses on neurophysiological indicators of learning in VR flight simulations. I am currently looking at the difference between desktop flight simulators and a VR flight simulators. To what extent does the fidelity of the simulation – so the degree to which the flight simulation resembles a real flight – influence the subjective workload or flight performance of the user and their brain activity? This topic fits in several types of fields, but the main one is neuro-ergonomics. With ergonomics you look at how a person interacts with a system. But neuro-ergonomics is more specific: you’re actually looking in the brain while this person interacts with a system, computer or machine. Once we have established models of the brain activity during training, we can try to predict the learning curve in VR flight simulations. Eventually we want to give neuro-feedback to the user, in the hope that it would increase their learning curve.’

What is it like to do your research with two external partners?

‘There is a lot of communication involved, with the partners, and internally with my supervisors at Tilburg University. And there is a lot of brainstorming. Everyone is enthusiastic and proactive. The meetings with the people from the partners are fun and inspiring. They are intelligent and have a lot of content-related feedback.’

What does the collaboration look like in practice? Do you go there?

‘My past data collection took place at Mindlabs, but for the next studies I plan to use the pilot trainees. That will take place in Soesterberg where the Airforce and Multisim are settled or I go to Woensdrecht in Zeeland where the pilot training takes place.’

You started with a study in neuroscience. How did you get into AI?

‘During my masters I did an internship that considered brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), and after that I knew for sure I wanted to continue with this kind of research. In short, BCIs are AI-driven interfaces that translate brain activity into device commands. In other words, we use AI to make sense of the electrical signals that are measured from the brain. BCIs could be applied to find out whether a person could be cognitive overloaded, which can impact safety, attention, but also learning. Our research concerns learning. We hope that with the use of BCIs in VR, we can increase the learning curve of these pilot trainees. Although BCIs in the field of work are relatively new, a lot of research groups worldwide are working on it right now. But as far as I’m aware, no one is researching the impact of BCIs on the learning curve in VR flight training yet.’

Is a PhD something you have to discover along the way?

‘Yes, it always starts with an idea and then you have to find more information and advice. You have to find out whether your ideas are practical. It takes a long time before you can actually start a study or data collection. There are so many fields, so many devices, so many ideas.’

You started your PhD in the middle of Corona time. How was this?

‘Well, everyone was in the same boat of course. And there were a lot of online meetings. Also meetings where we could interact with other PhD candidates and sometimes even play games, which was nice. When the lockdowns were less restrictive we got to see each other in person and we could really interact. And then another lockdown came. Right now we are starting up again, but we will probably continue to work flexible.’

What role could ICAI play in this for you and other PhD students?

‘The last time I had an in-person meetup at ICAI, at the ICAI day in October, I was able to connect with a lot of people from different levels and fields. We were seated at tables with a certain topic, where we could brainstorm. I got a chance to talk to people from different universities, PhD candidates, postdocs and even professors. It was really nice to learn about other projects within ICAI. I learned as well that there are some projects that involve BCIs.’

Would you like to see more meetups specifically aimed at PhD students within ICAI?

‘Something PhD-specific is always nice to have. As a PhD candidate you have different needs than someone who is a postdoc or beyond. If you’re struggling with something in your project, data analysis for example, or the AI part of machine learning, other PhD students can think along with you and recommend something.’

On Friday, March 11, 2022, ICAI organizes the first Social Meetup for PhD students (invite only). Do you want to get to know your fellow ICAI PhD students? Sign up!

Save the date: The ICAI Day – 2022 Summer edition will take place on Wednesday June 1, 2022!