In Conversation With: Nicola Rieke

Nicola Rieke is pursuing a PhD at the chair for Computer-Aided Medical Procedures (CAMP) at TUM. She obtained her Bachelor's degree in Mathematics in RWTH Aachen, and her Master’s degree in Biomedical Computing at TUM. We recently met up with Nicola and chatted about her academic journey, her current research, her thoughts on teaching, and what she thinks could be done to make the Informatics field more diverse. 

You’re a PhD student at the Computer Aided Medical Procedures (CAMP) chair. Can you tell us a little bit about your current research?

I am a 3rd year PhD student and my main focus is assistive computer vision for medical interventions. The main idea driving my research is how to support surgeons in an operation without disturbing the procedure simply by using computer vision methods. Most of my projects are in ophthalmology, and it’s a very challenging scenario because it operates on micron scales. Eyes are a sensitive organ, and every slight movement close to the retina may have a huge, irreversible impact. Normally the surgeon views the scene via a microscope mounted on top of the patient, and they can observe the outer part and the inner part of the eye through it. The entire operation is also usually captured in a video sequence. In our research we use the video sequence to support the surgeon with additional information in real time, i.e. how much distance is between the utilized tool and retinal surface.

What path led you to pursue a PhD position? Did you always know you wanted to do a PhD?

I always knew I was interested in science, especially medical science, but I didn’t want to be a doctor. I can’t stand blood! I did my Bachelor’s at Aachen where I majored in mathematics. I was having trouble choosing medicine or mathematics, so when I had to choose a minor for my studies, I took medicine, combining the two. Afterwards, I had a lot of knowledge about both but I didn’t know how they fit together.So I looked around and finally found the missing link: the master program Biomedical Computing here at the TUM. During my Bachelor’s I never considered doing a PhD, but working with the chair here during my master studies really opened my eyes. 

Coming from a mathematics background, was it difficult to believe you could do a PhD in Informatics?

Actually, yes, because in mathematics it’s all very abstract! But here, it’s a very direct, applied science. I don’t just write papers, I can go and meet with surgeons, present my ideas and discuss about what would be a real benefit during surgery. I see what impact my work has. Admittedly it has advantages and disadvantages. The sequence of research, collecting a dataset, writing a paper and then being finished isn’t possible. You really have to take it and push a step further and try to put it into practice. This has the huge advantage that your work does not remain in an abstract world and may indeed solve a real-world problem. How great would it be if patients would benefit from my work at some point in clinical procedure?

What aspect of pursuing your PhD has been your favorite?

Honestly, I find the life pretty amazing. It really is a job, you’re not just a student anymore, so you get paid and have a work life, but with the feeling of a student - the feeling of learning something new every day. There are so many bright, amazing people next to you and it’s really inspiring. It helps that Prof. Navab established a chair where everyone works together and is supportive. If I have an idea or problem, there is help to be found. But for a PhD, you do have to be dedicated: usually I work during the weekends. In the last three years, I think I only took one holiday without my work laptop. If there's a conference or results for something are being released or a deadline, you may get an email that you have to reply to within a week. If you're on vacation during that time and you miss it, well you’re in a bad spot. It is a full-time job. But if you don’t feel that it’s a job, if you really like it, it can be very fulfilling.

And on the contrary, did you have any struggles while pursuing your PhD?

A PhD is challenging! I was incredibly nervous as I started. But after the first three months, with huge support from many people in the chair, I was able to push my first successful paper. That’s really not normal, and alone I wouldn’t have done it. It was only possible because of the environment here. I understand that’s not typical. The first year is like orientation. You have to find your path to solve your research problem, and people can give you some direction but nobody can lay it out for you. There will be ups and downs, and maybe one of the biggest struggles is not to underestimate your own achievements and values. In a group of experts there are so many people who are better than you in a specific field in your chair, let alone in the world, and there’s pressure to try to constantly achieve more. To get to the point where you don’t constantly compare yourself to others and instead focus on making progress in your work, and looking at what you accomplish is difficult, and I still have to work on it daily.

You won the Young Scientist Award at the MICCAI conference 2015, can you tell us a little about what this award meant, and its impact on you?

The MICCAI is one of the top conferences in our field, and this was completely unexpected for me. As i said, I wrote a paper 3 months into my PhD, and submitted it to this top-tier conference without too many expectations. Then it was accepted, and I was awarded the Young Scientist Award! It was complete surprise, and extremely motivational! It opened so many doors from me. I went from being unknown to having many people see my face and my work and finding my name attached to this conference. I feel like it gave more value to my paper, a sort of stamp of approval from MICCAI and my research community. I was extremely grateful and it really fueled me with a passion to continue to do quality work.

What about teaching? Is this something you’ve had to do during your PhD? How do you enjoy that aspect of it?

Yes, and I actually like it. Some people don’t enjoy it as much that it distracts from their research, but I don’t feel that way. I see it as part of my education. What value does it have that I can do research on a topic but not be able to explain it to someone? If I just do that, my research stays kind of hidden. I think it’s an important and valuable task, and yes it takes time, it costs time, but the contact to students is worth it. Also I’m not that old, and I remember being an undergrad student so I can have an impact on things, especially things I felt I needed help with or would have benefited me a few years ago. When you’re working with students, do you see any differences between the genders? I definitely do not see differences with results for assignments or exams; I see no actual differences in performance. Behavior wise, there are definitely some differences. I find that women look for more contact with the tutors than the men do, and sometimes doubt themselves more. I also find that women are more open to asking questions about the material if they do not understand it.

Let’s talk a little bit about these differences in Informatics, because it’s a research area that lacks women. What do you think about that, and how can it appeal more to female students?

Yes, in general there are much fewer females than males, and that number gets smaller as you go from student to PhD to PostDocs, and the fewest are found among professors. It starts with the study program, I think. There are now good initial efforts to convince girls that computer science is a good path, but still I didn’t choose it myself. My father and brother are computer scientists, and I said “no, I’ll go for mathematics”. I thought that there were so many male students, it’s not my topic, and I’ll just go unnoticed there. Informatics is a broad field and much more than it’s cliché. Maybe we should go to schools and motivate kids. Maybe we should just start there - make informatics and computer science required subjects. Spread the word and show young people that there are women and interesting topics in these areas.

Do you feel like you’ve personally experienced or been affected by gender bias or discrimination?

Not directly, but I think there's a constant background of being underestimated, people thinking you may not do as good a job. Or perhaps you get the easier task assigned. I’ve had a couple of issues but I don’t know if I can say they were discrimination or just to do with me personally. I’ve found as long as I do my job and do my job well; it’s not an issue that affects me directly. You have to be aware of what you can achieve and have confidence. I think sometimes you can underestimate yourself, because of standards society sets that we live with. A lot of women struggle with it, that’s why it’s important to know your value and try not to sell yourself short. What is your personal experience managing the work-life balance? I would say, there is a blurred line. The “work” during my PhD does not feel like the opposite of “life”, so it’s difficult to draw a line for a work-life balance. In the end, the PhD is for yourself. However, it happens that I don’t have real leisure time for some weeks and this may be difficult. While I don’t have any children, I do have a significant other. It helps that he also is a PhD student, because I could see how hard that might be when pursuing totally different careers. We are both in the same chair, but not in the same workspace. We don’t collaborate or write papers together but we get to do all the fun things related to our work together like travel to conferences. For other females who are already considering a family – I do think that having children is feasible as a PhD – it is definitely a lot of hard work and requires even more dedication, but the flexible working hours and ability to work from home makes it possible.

What advice would you give younger females who may be getting considering pursuing a PhD?

I would say PhD life is both amazing and challenging, and do it if you're very interested in the topic. Also, don’t just join any research group; find one that works well together and closely with one another. It’s all about the people you work with. Find out if how often they publish and what kind of expectations they have from their students. Don’t do it for the title or the money. A PhD opens amazing opportunities, both in academia and industry. Finally, always try to motivate yourself - you can do it! You only have to believe in yourself. 


Published January 2018