The First of Many – publishing your first academic papers as a PhD researcher
Since November 2020, Evy van Weelden is a PhD researcher at the Department of Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence at Tilburg University. Recently she published her first two papers, at two different scientific conferences, and presented her work at both of them. We had a chat about the first year of the PhD trajectory, interdisciplinary research, and publishing your work for the first time.
Let’s start with telling us something about yourself – what were your research interests before you started your PhD?
Evy: “I have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a master’s degree in Neuroscience and Cognition, both from Utrecht University. During that time, I discovered that I really liked the data and signal processing aspects of technologies such as EEG. I also developed an interest in brain-computer interfaces. When I heard about the project I’m currently working on, I was intrigued by the complexity – biomarkers, EEG, finding features with machine learning, the Air Force is involved… I am very excited about the interdisciplinary aspects. I want to learn more about artificial intelligence, really excel in programming. My goal is to be able to do the full analysis on my own, so that at the end of my PhD, I can say that I mastered all the disciplines involved. Naturally, I also know that the learning will never end! When I did my bachelor’s, I thought Master students were so smart. During my own master’s, I thought the same about PhD researchers. And now I’m looking at postdocs and know there is so much still to learn. I am also trying to just enjoy the moment though. Currently I’m really excited about the conference papers!”
I hear biomarkers, EEG, Air Force… sounds like an interesting project indeed! Could you tell us a bit more?
Evy: “I’m on the ‘VR for air force simulations’ RegionDeal project. This is one of the five projects that fall under the MasterMinds project, an initiative at MindLabs. All projects have partners from outside the university – in our case the Royal Netherlands Air Force and multiSIM BV. We are trying to answer questions from the Air Force about the effectiveness of flight simulations, which they use for pilot training. The other partner, multiSIM BV, develop "open simulation" solutions for research and training, and made the VR simulation used in this project. From Tilburg University, the PI’s [principal investigators] are Max Louwerse, Maryam Alimardani, and Travis Wiltshire. Our research is more broadly on virtual reality in aviation, with a focus on neurophysiology. We want to innovate the existing systems and find neuro-indicators for learning. The end-goal is to create an adaptive flight training system that can adjust to the user. Something in VR that improves the learning outcomes of pilot trainees, in addition to the training they currently have. The number of hours trainees get in a physical simulator or actual plane is limited, but with VR they might be able to supplement their training at home. Every hour they can spend on additional training is good. We are also looking to predict what the learning style of a trainee is using brain activity. Some people learn flying faster than others, and perhaps we can tackle that by making the training more adaptive.”
You have been working on this project for almost exactly a year now, and there are two papers out in the world. What are they about?
Evy: “One is a relatively small literature review identifying knowledge gaps and future research directions, mostly to inspire other researchers. The other is an abstract of what we are doing now. We of course do not have the time or means to answer all the open questions, so perhaps some new collaborations can come about. We have also written a longer, systematic review which is currently in the reviewing process. There is a lot of literature on flight training, on VR, on neurotechnology, but barely anything about the combination of these. There is so much information available from the brain, but most studies use heart rate or skin conductance, which can be influenced by many different factors. You do not know what the underlying process is – whereas with the brain you are looking at the underlying process directly. We are mainly interested in workload and engagement. If the mental resources are completely used up by a task, there is not much left for other things. But pilots need to have some capacity left over for communication, unexpected events, weather conditions… so there is likely a sweet spot, where you are neither underloaded nor overloaded. This would be ideal for engagement, attention and motivation. We need to discover how to optimize the workload for the best learning outcome, and how it changes as pilots learn to fly. And if we look broadly, we could find a feature that we had not thought of beforehand.”
Congratulations on the publications! What is now the next step?
Evy: “We have just finished running the first study to compare VR with desktop simulations. The simulation is still being developed, but it’s complete enough that we can use it in the lab – especially because our first subjects are not pilots and do not notice the difference! But the goal is to make it as realistic as possible. Hopefully next year we can study actual pilot trainees. So far, everyone who tried the VR simulation is enthusiastic and amazed at how realistic it feels. If you turn the plane, it feels like it’s really happening. The communication with the partners has also gone well, they are very interested in what we do and open to ideas. It is nice to be able to brainstorm a lot. Everyone has made me feel really welcome and supported, so it has been a great first year!”
Evy presented “Advancing the Adoption of Virtual Reality and Neurotechnology to Improve Flight Training” at IEEE International Conference on Human-Machine Systems 2021. You can read the paper here: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/9582658
She additionally did a poster presentation on “Validating EEG biomarkers in Virtual Reality and Desktop Flight Training” at Neuroergonomics Conference 2021. You can read the paper here: https://neuroergonomicsconference.um.ifi.lmu.de/wp-content/uploads/submissions/179.pdf
To read more about this project or get involved in MasterMinds, click here: https://www.mind-labs.eu/en/projects/virtual-augmented-reality/vr-in-the-airforce/
Evy also documents her PhD journey on her website: https://www.evyvanweelden.com/
Author: Lisa E. Rombout
Image credit: Evy van Weelden