Meet the Scientist
Helen Bear (Yogi)
Post-Doctoral Researcher at Queen Mary University of London
What scientific field do you work in?
I am a post-doctoral researcher in the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) where I use signal processing and machine learning to develop artificial intelligence audio and visual signals. As a computer scientist my background is visual speech processing (lipreading) and now I analyse sound scenes.
"...I fell in love with German gingerbread..."
Could you briefly explain what your job involves?
In the main I get to do hands-on research, that is designing experiments, programming, developing tools etc), but I also supervise Masters and PhD students, write grants for new research proposals and travel! I am currently setting up a new collaboration with industry partners in conjunction with some music experts at C4DM and it is really exciting to lead a project from the outset.
Do you have any secret talents?
I used to earn extra cash as a part-time model when I was in my late-teens/early 20s! Most people are surprised when I let that slip as being mostly pre-facebook I managed to keep it quiet for a long time. I used to think that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a scientist if people knew, but now that computer science is slowly but surely becoming more diverse I’m proud of my alternative background.
When did you decide you wanted to work as a scientist?
I loved science in high school, I was never the greatest student but I was always asking questions. Whilst chemistry, physics and maths never failed to intrigue me, my weakest science was Biology. I remember one teacher (Mr Birbeck) holding me back after biology class one time and insisting on giving me extra classes after school and lunchtimes to improve. The next thing I knew I was flying and with that new-found confidence I wanted to do more science – any science!
What's your favourite food?
Without any hesitation, German gingerbread! During my winter in Munich I fell in love with German gingerbread, it’s the best you can get anywhere!
What educational pathway did you take to get to where you are now?
I didn’t take the traditional academic route by any means. University wasn’t an option for me after high school so I went out to work. I worked on computer helpdesks and the developers taught me how to code in VB6! This was my first opportunity to learn programming and I was hooked.
It was after working my way up the ‘career ladder’ for a few years the main thing holding me back from further promotion was the lack of a degree, so I return to formal education as a mature student, relocated, and enrolled in a Computer Science degree at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. It was here that everything changed for me. It wasn’t only the academic education that changed my perspective, it was the opportunities it opened that I never even knew existed before. It was here I learned what a research career included and inspired by the faculty I learned that I was capable of pursuing this path.
The next challenge however was graduating in 2008 in the worst part of the last economic recession. Whilst with a good degree I couldn’t leave my Norwich family it took me four years (whilst working in industry) to get a fully-funded PhD place despite applying every year. It is hard when you’re geographically tied, and this is something I learned doesn’t change throughout my career choice. But after my PhD everything changed again. I secured a lecturing post at a teaching-based university and it took me away from my beloved research, I missed it so much! In the end I left for a visiting position at the Technical University in Munich, which was the most incredible experience – I was so proud of my Masters students when their papers were accepted for publication.
Some people are surprised that I stepped down from being faculty to be a post-doc at QMUL. But this is the most important lesson I’ve learned in research – I’ve changed topics from vision to audio by being here, and taken a hefty salary cut. But, at C4DM I am now part of a large team in a collaborative lab of wonderful people all focused and supportive of each other to deliver the highest quality research we possibly can. I never stop learning here, its new lessons every day. Education doesn’t always happen in a classroom, even when it is academic.
"...I'm happy to come into the office... I'm surrounded by brilliant academics!"
What was the best thing about your job?
My team! I can not rave more highly about my current team. We are so diverse, with varied backgrounds and skillsets, and personalities but also everyone I’ve met in C4DM is open, collaborative and willing to share. Every morning I’m happy to come into the office and get on because I know I’m surrounded by brilliant academics.
What was the worst thing about your job?
The fixed-term contract. It’s the curse of post-doctoral research that project funds are always finite. Particularly given I am currently based in a team of exceptional people (both who they are and what they do!) C4DM is somewhere I would like to stay and at the moment I know my days here are numbered until I get the next grant secured.
If you could take one thing with you to an island, what would it be and why?
This has to be sunblock – I am a red-head with fair skin!
"I'm proud of my alternative background!"
Have you taken part in any research?
Oh my, trying to pick between two projects is really tough. I am really grateful to have had a fantastic PhD supervisor and a topic of developing lipreading algorithms. Lipreading is something most people are aware of and the use of it in science-fiction helps it sound ‘cool’. The reality is it is still hard work – but the benefits that came with this; public engagement (I’ve been interviewed for various TV and radio outlets worldwide) and travel opportunities were one in a lifetime experiences.
Furthermore, the potential benefits of this work are further reaching than many first think, not only for security but also as virtual referees in sports events, and lipreading silent historical videos are good for our society.
If you could be anyone in the world for 24 hours, who would you be?
Laverne Cox! I’ve never met her but I follow her on Twitter. She is so articulate and such a strong, assured, inclusive, & selfless advocate of others that I think she is a role model for how humans should behave. Humanity is not defined about helping ourselves; it is about what we can give to others.
Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in your career path?
Go for it! There are amazing opportunities, not only in academia but also in industry for computer scientists. The culture is changing and it only gets better, the chance to travel and see the world and get paid to do it – not to mention that the work is great fun too. We need people from all walks of life, with new ideas & approaches. If you have ideas, and are prepared to work and learn, this is a very rewarding path to follow.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Follow me on twitter @dryogilbear for all kinds of computer science news and opportunities.
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