Julie Digne, Caitlin Mueller, and Alexa Siu share advice for budding researchers at SGP panel

Based on a Zoom panel moderated by Silvia Sellán, transcribed and edited by Kate Salesin and Liane Makatura
Posted on July 7, 2022

WiGRAPH hosted a Q&A panel with researchers Julie Digne (LIRIS), Caitlin Mueller (MIT), and Alexa Siu (Adobe) at the virtual Symposium on Geometry Processing on Wednesday, July 6th, moderated by Silvia Sellán. In case you couldn't join us for the live session (or you want a recap!), check out this summary of the event to get the panel's insights on careers, collaboration, choosing (or abandoning) projects, placing our research in the broader world context, and more!

Meet Julie

I am currently a CNRS Researcher at LIRIS (équipe Origami). I obtained a PhD in Applied Mathematics from École normale supérieure de Cachan in 2010 with Jean-Michel Morel. I graduated from both ENS Cachan (master MVA) and Télécom ParisTech (engineering degree). My research interests lie in the field of surface processing and surface analysis, in particular when the surfaces are represented as point clouds. It includes surface denoising, meshing, scan merging and surface segmentation. I am particularly interested in developing machine learning approaches for geometric data.

Meet Caitlin

I am an academic working at the boundaries of architecture and structural engineering, with a focus on creative structural design and fabrication. I am currently an Assistant Professor in Building Technology at MIT, where I lead the Digital Structures research group and co-direct the Structural Design Lab.

Meet Alexa

I am a research scientist at Adobe Research. My research interests are primarily in the fields of Human-Computer Interaction & Accessibility. I investigate how multimodal perception can improve how we understand and interact with information. The results of my work have led to novel haptic interfaces that aim to make spatial information more accessible for people who are blind. Application areas of interest include supporting design, collaboration, information visualization and VR/AR. Prior to Adobe, I was part of the shape lab and the HCI Group at Stanford University, advised by Prof. Sean Follmer. Previously, I completed my M.S. in Mechanical Engineering also at Stanford and my B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech with a minor in Computer Science.


Q & A with WiGRAPH

What is something you really love about your job?

Caitlin: This might be a cliche, but I love everything about my job. It is such a luxury in research that we get to work on exactly what we want to. It is also a pleasure and a privilege to work with my students and colleagues.

Julie: What drives me is the excitement of finding something that is perhaps not well researched and then starting to explore it. I harness that excitement and try to keep going down that path for quite some time.

Alexa: I get to work on really exciting problems and directions for spaces that are less explored or perhaps even undefined. I also love working with collaborators and students and seeing how our research evolves over time.

One of the missions we have at WiGRAPH is to help women who are finishing their academic studies explore what to do next and provide guidance on potential career paths. We have three perspectives here: academic, public, and private research. What made you choose this path? What is a piece of advice or warning you would give to someone who is thinking of pursuing the same path (or something you wish you had known)?

Julie: I would have wanted to know the importance of connecting with other researchers, to see whether there is something you can each bring to the table for a collaboration, rather than trying to do my own stuff in my own room. The reason I chose academia is because I was completely free to choose my own topic – if I wanted to study the geometry of clouds or even switch to something further than that like environmental research, that would have been possible.

WiGRAPH (follow-up): You stayed in the French system of research institutes that are government-run but associated with universities. Why choose that versus a university across the border or a private company?

Julie: The French system is very complicated, even for us. The reason to go to a research institute is that you are entirely free to do research. In particular, you are able to teach if you want to, but you are not obliged. The teaching workload in France is huge – roughly 200 hours per year – so this makes a big difference.

Alexa: If you are unsure in deciding between industry and academia, ask people from both sides a lot of questions. As a PhD student, it is easier to relate to academia since you are closer to that environment, but I have learned a lot in my short time as an industry researcher.

WiGRAPH (follow-up): What question do you think is important to ask before choosing an industry position?

Alexa: Get to know the people you will be collaborating with every day and make sure that is a good environment.

Caitlin: I would have happily gone into either industry or academia, though architecture is very different from computer science in that it is very difficult to do research that is groundbreaking in practice. The architecture industry is so caught up in its operational side and margins are low to be commercially successful. I had a little industry experience, but I ran back to academia in order to have more freedom. In architecture, most people have an impact when they are 70 or 80 years old, but professors in academia are able to have an impact at a younger age and across a longer period of time. It was appealing to me that I wouldn’t have to put in decades of work before gaining recognition.

If you’re open to being a professor, communicating that with mentors is really important. They can curate your experience by helping you meet the right people, go to the right conferences, etc. On the one hand, graduate school was one of the best times in my life in terms of having complete freedom in an intellectual playground, but it was also a time of stress and anxiety, which could impede someone from wanting to do that forever.

We often hear about how to be an effective mentor or mentee, but something I have struggled with recently is how to collaborate horizontally, i.e. between students or between professors with different areas of expertise. You have to balance respecting the other person’s expertise with asserting your own knowledge and capabilities. How do you navigate horizontal collaborations?

Julie: There is no universal answer. My personal take is to be as frank as possible. That includes telling the other collaborator when you think they are wrong, and also admitting when you might be wrong, don’t know something, or need clarification. It is not a good situation when both parties pretend to know something, and it may even delay the project.

Caitlin: Horizontal collaborations are really challenging. One model for managing these collaborations is extreme closeness between the collaborators, where you have the safety of giving and receiving blunt feedback and no one is likely to take offense. However, it takes time to get to know someone to that level. The other model is a respectful relationship where you occasionally speak your mind, but are careful to balance what you say and maintain an open mind. You don’t want to win every teeny battle right away and risk souring a potential long-term collaboration. Many people in academia use this latter model.

Alexa: Every collaboration is different. You should be open-minded to others’ perspectives and willing to have conversations about where you might be wrong or where one route may be better than another.

We are all researchers, but we are also people living in the same world as everyone else. I started my PhD in 2019, which felt like a different universe – the world has become darker and darker with the pandemic, war, climate catastrophe, etc. It can be really hard to work on solving a little math problem and not read the news on the latest horrible thing or think maybe my work isn’t helping anyone. Why and how might we keep working on our research at times like this, and come to terms with the idea that we should be doing something more for society?

Caitlin: Everyone can relate to this! Many of us want to be generalists and are broadly intellectually interested in the entire world, so when you get a PhD and solve one specific math problem, it goes against that desire to be a Renaissance person. However, through that specificity is the way back to generality. If you put in the effort to develop your expertise in an area where you are intellectually and independently motivated, then you can find a way to apply that expertise more generally. That effort allows you to use your gifts and strengths as best you can and equip yourself to contribute to the world.

Julie: This is an excellent question, and I have no good answer. Should I stop doing what I do and try to do something that has a more direct impact? Our research could even be thought of as harmful, e.g. more automation could mean fewer jobs, but it could also be thought of as positive, e.g. leading to better medical imaging. You put this umbrella over your head when you wake up in the morning and say, I’m just going to work on the shapes of very cute creatures today, but when you close the umbrella, you remember how dark the world has become.

Alexa: Reflecting on our research is always important. Think about how you are impacting the community that you are working with and other communities in the world. Doing research in the space of accessibility can have a lot of positive impact but there are also negatives: when you are working in that community, you are taking a lot of their time and you worry about false promises and not being able to ultimately deploy the research to that community. Always take time to take care of yourself and others; there are other ways you can have an impact than research.

There are so many potential projects to start and only a finite amount of time, especially during a PhD. How do you choose what to work on as a project, say for the next six months?

Alexa: That is a great question – I had the same one when I was a PhD student. Choose projects that keep you up at night, ones that you are really motivated to work on, ones where you have a unique perspective that you can bring to the project. Choose collaborators who you can learn from.

Caitlin: This is a very common situation. I remember having spreadsheets of papers that I was going to write when I was a PhD student. Getting excited about those ideas and getting into the academic publishing process is a thrilling experience, but how do you not feel bad when you don’t have time to fulfill all of those ideas? Accept that you don’t have infinite time, and try to prioritize the couple of projects that you’re most excited about. You don't have to do everything yourself – for example, one of your students in the future might work on a project you've set aside. Having a serial approach to publishing can help you feel like you’re accomplishing something. I try to choose things that someone could not have done 20 years ago. Someone once told me that I should work on problems that very few other people could work on. Think about what you're uniquely equipped to solve: look to history, look in a direction that other people are not looking, look for that orthogonal basis vector.

Julie: You should focus on a smaller number of projects as a PhD student – having two or three projects is nice because when you are stuck on one you can switch to the others. However, it's important to have your own research profile. Be mindful about branching out too much early in your career. It's possible that you are exceptionally brilliant and able to make substantial contributions to all those fields, but more likely it will appear as if you are just going with the wind, without really being convinced of any one topic. If you fail to define your originality in any one field, it becomes harder to classify you as an expert in [blank].

Motivation is short term: it is tempting to chase a project that is so interesting that it keeps you up at night, but that phase often lasts for less time than it takes for you to actually finish the project. The curve of motivation goes sharply down then linearly up. How do you get through that slump?

Alexa: No matter how excited you are, over time you lose steam and motivation with all projects. One thing that helps me is to write down a lot of my thoughts, ideas, motivations, and what I am excited about. Then in a few months' time, I can read those notes in order to remember that excitement and reflect on my work and where it is now. It lets me see the progress I’ve made, the challenges I had, and how I overcame them. Also, constantly ask for feedback from people.

Caitlin: The more projects you do, the more you know that this is a temporary slump: you know that you are capable, you can see the horizon, you can conceptualize those changes and then projects become less anxiety-ridden. It is also okay to drop projects, even if you've spent six months on it. As an advisor, when a student of mine drops a project I know that they learned a lot about that topic and it will work its way into future projects. Not every project needs to reach the exact same endpoint. Perfectionism can also get in the way.

Julie: Write down one thing every day that you were proud to have understood or accomplished. You may not have made a breakthrough today, but you did make a small amount of progress. I like the story of Katalin Kariko, a developer of the mRNA vaccine. She struggled throughout her career but was still motivated by what she did; that is an example we can try to follow when we are not doing so well.

When do you know that you should drop a project?

Caitlin: It can be helpful to think of it not as "abandoning the project forever", but rather as "putting a cap on it for now." Maybe the technology now is not mature enough to do what we want to do – my work depends on many layers of other people’s work. You might also pause because you are no longer interested or someone else writes the definitive paper on that topic. It’s rare that you would say you will never ever work on that project again. It’s okay for things to start and stop and have different timescales than just the finite time of a PhD.

Alexa: It’s hard to say when things stop and end, it depends on the details of each project. I agree with [Caitlin], it is not forever and things have a way of coming around. Even if you don’t talk about it or show it in a presentation, that project might come up in a conversation and those people might have a fresh perspective.

Julie: You never really drop a project, you pause it. I cannot think of a single researcher who does not have a folder of 10 or 20 unfinished projects. Sometimes you get excited again about an idea you had a few years ago – if it has not been published since, you can pick it up again. It is a natural process to get excited about something else, start a new project, forget about the first one for a while, then take it up again when you can.

Audience Questions

As remote work and collaborations become more common, what is your advice for building confidence and trust with your remote collaborators?

Caitlin: Remote collaborations will not always work out and that’s okay. You won’t always have a super close and harmonious relationship with someone you don’t know well. Set expectations realistically. Have a conversation that is not about the project and make a connection over a shared history or interest, this helps everyone see each other in a more holistic way and inspires a closer trust and generosity of spirit.

Julie: Every collaboration I built started with in-person meetings. Although they have continued remotely, they otherwise started in person, so I don’t really know how to do that!

Alexa: For me, it is quite different because I started a new job during the pandemic and I have not met many of my colleagues in person. I have been learning to navigate this new setting. I think setting aside time to talk to people about things other than research and finding common ground is important. With large group meetings it can be harder to connect; find a time to meet people one-on-one outside of those settings.