Some notes on my supervision approach
The broad vision and approach
I believe in the importance of nurturing a sense of ownership among research students when it comes to raising and addressing research questions. Not only does this approach enhance productivity, but it also contributes to the overall well-being of students. As the director of the Morphlab, I have a long-term aim to understand how the brain, body, and the environment work as a network to solve dynamic problems. We use soft robotics as a platform to test different hypotheses aiming at this overarching objective. The good thing about this approach is that we end up making useful robots as well as contributing to our fundamental understanding about nature.
Therefore, I want those who think that their passion aligns with this overarching vision to join the lab. It's important to recognize that different students have different preferences - some may lean towards numerical analysis over experimentation, while others may thrive on creativity and experimentation, or enjoy learning new methods. Understanding these nuances requires extensive discussion and a deep understanding of each student's unique aspirations. With this in mind, I have prepared specific guides that summarize important information I want my students to be aware of.
What should be our goal?
Our primary goal is to make impactful contributions to the advancement of fundamental knowledge leading to social and commercial transformations. Peer reviewed publications is the most common dissemination method to reach this goal. However, rather than fixating on publishing, focus on raising an original question worthy of spending a year of your life investigating. Regular discussions with me can help to refine the question.
What kind of questions are worthy of addressing?
Questions that are worthy of investigation fall into two broad types. Those "how did it happen?" type questions are the ones that have revolutionised our fundamental understanding of the world. Some past questions of this type are, "how do mountain goats survive on steep cliffs? Can the morphology of their hoofs hold some secrets?", "why do physicians take different actions to feel internal organ conditions? Can the way the finger shape and stiffness are tuned hold some secrets about haptic perception?". The other is "can this be done in a better way?" type of questions. They lead to innovation. One example is, "can we improve the way to detect insect activity in trees using better bio-inspired sensors?". This has led to a spin-out company called Permia Sensing Ltd.
What would be a good annual target for each lab member?
A good dissemination goal for each lab member would be to spend an entire year to publish one high quality first authored paper. Since we work as a team, your contributions to other projects will earn co-authored papers too. So, there's no need to worry about publishing.
How research grants and your work are related?
You will soon see the advantage of having research grants. I spend a significant amount of time writing grant proposals. These ideas come based on the work we do as a team under a shared vision. Often present lab members enjoy the fruits of grants written based on the hard work done by previous lab members. We believe in forward passing. So, keep in mind that a large number of future lab members depend on our present hard work.
What do I expect from different lab members?
- If you are a postdoc in the Morphlab, you are expected to lead a project independently. You should be an example to PhD and masters’ students in terms of attitudes, approach to research, and teamwork. You should absolutely believe in what you do and not do anything just because I want it to be done. You should also challenge me and suggest alternatives whenever you think I am wrong. Please communicate your career goals clearly to me so that I can provide the necessary resources and introductions to nurture the background.
- If you are a PhD student, please don’t worry about converging to a solid idea within the first 3 months. Do few basic experiments and simulations while reading and talk to me as often as possible. Avoid getting advice from too many sources. That usually confuses you, because there is no one way to do things. Just tell me what you are excited about and what challenges you are facing and be as open as possible. I will sometimes suggest you to try out few things. It may sound random suggestions, but they come with a grand plan in mind, but don’t ever think that I know the destination. By the 2nd year, you should feel that you are on the steering wheel. That is when you truly start to enjoy research.
- If you are a masters student, possibly you get my most attention because this could be your first research experience. Please have weekly meeting time from the start to simplify the research question to a testable one and develop a sound repeatable methodology. All what you learn in a masters project is how to approach to solve a problem.
Why should you know about college IP policy?
It is important to keep in mind the Imperial IP policy to avoid misunderstandings and dissapointments after accomplishing a team task. If you are employed in a project, then it is college IP. If you are a student, the general rule is that IP belongs to the student but with 4 exceptions. For instance under exception (i) under student generated IP section in the linked document, if an external party is involved to provide support, IP should be shared. Other exceptions should also be considered such as involvement of college staff (academics, postdocs, and research assistants), building up on prior work in the lab, etc. Please read the above IP policy carefully.
Few points to remember in the way I approach team management:
- Empowerment of female research students is a priority for me, as I strongly believe in achieving gender balance in the field of personal robotics for its future advancement. However, it's important to note that this support is not based on any bias specific to you. My primary concern is your growth and development as a researcher, which can be demonstrated through your publications.
- Usually, I sponsor each PhD student or research assistant to attend their first international conference (usually RoboSoft, IROS, or ICRA) to show the average quality of publications. However, from there onwards, I find resources to support only if you get a paper accepted.
- In order to ensure transparency and effective collaboration, it is essential that I am aware of the team members involved when planning to submit a paper to a journal or conference. I believe in actively engaging with the team throughout the entire process, including iterations of experiments and paper writing leading up to the submission. It is important to note that I cannot include individuals in the co-author list at the last moment solely based on their perception of contributing to the paper, especially if they have not been regularly involved in team meetings. Likewise, if I become aware of work only in the final days before submission and feel that my intellectual contributions were insufficient, I may suggest that you proceed without including my name. This approach ensures fairness and accountability in authorship attribution.
- I expect the postdocs and PhD students to contribute some time to help lab management and team building. This gives you valuable experiences to lead your own team one day.
- When I give public talks, I display the photos and names of students who contributed to each result. Usually, I show only published work. I tend to highlight the names of the most junior lab members because they don't get a chance to give their own talks as often as PhD students and postdocs. I expect postdocs to find their own opportunities to give invited talks and promote themselves. I often make LinkedIn posts promoting these activities of postdocs and PhD students.
- We try to have monthly lab outings to do fun things like going for a walk in Hyde Park, play, and have an evening meal together. We also use these opportunities to discuss topics that we usually don’t talk during daily work.
- I prioritize your passion for research over monitoring your daily presence in the lab. Your commitment and enthusiasm are evident through our regular conversations. I encourage you to plan your own life in a way that allows you to be as productive as possible, benefiting both your personal growth and the progress of our lab. So, we are not a 9am - 5pm lab!
Some useful links: