Hearing Aid Research: Using Brain Signals to Measure Listening Effort

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  • Name: Tirdad Seifi Ala
  • Number of lab members or colleagues (excluding PI): 20
  • Location: Glasgow, UK
  • Graduation Date: Will graduate in 2021 (Ph.D.)
  • H index: 7
  • Grants: I’m funded by HEAR-ECO765329 (European Union’s Horizon 2020, Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement)
  • Success of lab’s members: Major grants
  • Twitter followers: 21 (not really active on Twitter)

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

I am a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, Hearing Sciences, Scottish Section, located in Glasgow. I am part of the H2020 EC Marie-Curie ITN project “Innovative Hearing Aid Research – Ecological Conditions and Outcome Measures” (HEAR-ECO). The aim of the project is to develop and combine new outcome measures for listening effort in realistic situations. The focus of my PhD is to utilize brain signals (EEG) to measure listening effort objectively.

The thing I like about my PhD is that it’s a collaboration between academia (three partners) and industry (one partner), so it gives me the opportunity to work in both environments. I started my PhD at Eriksholm Research Centre, part of Oticon, Denmark. There, I could get a chance to work and learn from experts in the hearing aid industry. This was an amazing experience, as I could develop both professionally and personally, while enjoying my time there.

Now, in the second part of my PhD, I’m located in Glasgow, continuing my studies in the Hearing Sciences Scottish Section of the University of Nottingham. This is helping me to grow and develop new skills. With the COVID-19 outbreak, we are working from home at the moment and things are a bit different, but I still enjoy life in Glasgow.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I am a biomedical engineer from Iran. I did my BSc and MSc in my country. The field of biomedical engineering always fascinated me as I liked the idea of interacting with the human body through clever tricks of engineering. In my MSc, I started working with brain signals (particularly those associated with auditory stimuli) and it was an enriching experience that ultimately made me pursue a similar field for my PhD.

Please describe the process of learning, iterating, and creating the project

I guess there are two sides to this question. On one hand, it can be very enjoyable and on the other hand, it might be a grind. When it comes to developing a skillset or anything similar, I think you have to enjoy it if you want to succeed in it. In my case, the main example was when I learnt programming. Everybody who has done programming knows that it can be so frustrating at times. But in general, if you enjoy doing it and stay with it, you can get over the frustrations pretty quickly and they only make you better in the end.

Please describe the process of launching your project

I cannot talk about big scale projects because I haven’t been part of launching them. But as a PhD student, you are responsible for running several projects for your studies. In our field, most of the projects involve human test participants. So, the first step is to make sure all the ethical regulations are met. After several tries, I have realized that the most important step is the structure of the project and being sure what you want to get out of it. The devil is in the details and you never regret spending time on the details that might look unimportant at first.

Since launch, what has worked to make your project grow/successful?

In terms of the project itself, I think in HEAR-ECO the most important thing for us has been the great structure of the project. We know what we are supposed to do and when and how the deadlines should be met. This keeps everybody on the same page and makes collaboration much easier.

But for my own personal growth, the best thing has been working with inspirational people who have helped me grow both in my professional and personal life. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be surrounded by people who are ambitious and yet supportive when you need them.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

With the COVID-19 outbreak, things are not easy at the moment. I was planning to do an experiment in the next year but now the chances of that are slim. Fortunately, there are many other things for me to do like writing papers and my thesis, etc. My PhD will be over soon, so I have to consider in the near future what would be the best move for me in my career, given the opportunities.

Through your science, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There are many lessons, that are each circumstance specific. I came from a country that was a bit outside the global network, so it was difficult for me to put myself out there for a fair recognition. Although it worked out in the end and I could get a very desirable funding for my PhD.

I’m sure a lot of students coming from similar countries also experience similar difficulties. The process of applying for a better job or post-graduate opportunities is always frustrating and it takes a toll on everybody, but I learned that I need to be patient. If you do the best you can, the right position will come to you in the end. That’s probably the most valuable lesson I could share in my young career.

Our readers would be glad to know more about you. Please let us know what is your morning routine like.

I am actually a night owl and most efficient at night. But also, I believe that starting the day in good rhythm sets the tone for the rest of the day. I start my days with a nice breakfast and then I work immediately after that, while my mind is fresh. I usually like to do more difficult work like programming, analyzing, etc., in the morning and leave less difficult things (for example replying to emails) for the rest of the day.

And how does a typical day look for you?

It’s been several months now of working from home, so the routine for me has changed a bit. I like to work immediately after I wake up in the morning, but my favorite time to work is at night. Sometimes I don’t even notice that I’m up until 2 AM or so doing work. I also have to take a long nap during the day, because otherwise my brain becomes too tired.

Other than work, I always try to do hobbies, because if I don’t, I’ll get burned out quickly. What I do depends on my mood, but mostly they are indoor hobbies. I play video games, watch movies, watch sports and other mindless things to relax.

What does your workstation look like?

I like to work in a place with a view of nature (who doesn’t!). I’m lucky that my house offers me that. Especially with the Glasgow weather, which is always rainy, it creates beautiful scenery that freshens up my brain. I like to drink coffee or tea and listen to instrumental music during my work.

What platform/tools do you use for your professional life?

We have a website for our project (you can find the link at the bottom of the interview) and are also active on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. I also personally use ResearchGate and LinkedIn too, because they are great platforms for expanding my network and sharing my work.

What secondary software and apps do you use daily?

For my daily schedule, I use Outlook calendar regularly because it keeps me structured. Other than that, I use several types of programming software such as MATLAB or Python for my work. I do enjoy using them as I’m a programming geek (or at least I claim to be).

How do you stay up to date on news and resources?

Mostly by social media. Having worked in a hearing aid industry, I’m now following the news feed on hearing aids and hearing sciences in general. But also, as I am fascinated by the brain, I read the most recent updates on brain technologies and even visionary articles on how far we might go in the field of neuroscience.

What have been the most influential podcasts, or other resources?

Nothing particular comes to my mind, to be honest. Over the years, I have read some amazing articles and books on brain signals, neuroscience and programming, which all played a part in my development.

What tools do you use in your personal life? Cook? Self Care? Hobbies?

I try to do things that make me happy regularly in life. I need to do some exercise because it keeps me in a good mood. And I love cooking! Eating delicious food also cheers me up. I watch basketball and listen to all kinds of music (my favorite is metal). Also, recently I’ve started learning how to play piano, but I’m really bad at it.

Advice for other scientists who want to get started or are just starting out?

I think the key is consistency. At any point of our journey we may face ups and downs. Sometimes they are very encouraging, but they can also be very disheartening. I think the most important thing is your attitude towards them. If you know they are all temporary and necessary for the final goal, even a minor setback can be a blessing for you in the long run.

Thank you very much for your time, Tirdad. Where can we go to learn more?

You can visit our website at:  http://hear-eco.eu/

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