Out of adversity… came research connections

Dr Tim Storer, Director of Knowledge Exchange & Impact at the SICSA research pool and Dr Ali McIntosh, Director of SULSA, on a pandemic innovation with growing benefits for research.

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Initially, the creation of the Coffee Break at RIS was driven by immediate need. At the outset of the pandemic, a lot of the core activity of the Pools to promote collaborations across institutions and disciplines became difficult or impossible: in-person workshops, sandpits and bilateral exchanges just wouldn’t be feasible for the foreseeable future. The Pools are led by a combination of academics and research management professionals, who recognised that the informal aspects of these activities are a vital way of sparking new ideas and collaborations. We wanted to recreate the opportunity to have a short, informal, no commitment conversation with someone unexpected whilst standing in the queue for a hot drink at a workshop or university meeting.

In addition, the restrictions of the pandemic meant that many of our researchers had suddenly become very isolated. Early careers researchers in particular were more likely to be living by themselves. There was considerable concern as to what impact this might have on mental health and general welfare. We wanted to help create opportunities for social interaction for our colleagues, as much as professional discussions.

For The Coffee Break, researchers from across the RIS network of Research Pools could sign up for up to three coffee break meetings at a time. We asked them to indicate their preference for which other research pool they would like to be matched with and matched people as enquiries came in. We then helped participants to schedule a call that wasn’t expected to last more than 15 minutes. We did a lightweight follow-up afterwards to see what the outcome was.

We deliberately avoided matching based on anything other than disciplines of interest, so for example, a PhD student in Veterinary Science could be matched to a professor in Computing. The point is that both parties commit 15 minutes of their time to learn about another researcher at any stage of their career, as well as their interests and focus.

Most of the time these conversations lead to absolutely nothing concrete, and that’s as it should be. Not every conversation in the Coffee Break is going to lead to a Horizon Europe application, but there is often a wide range of benefits. Participants might learn about career opportunities (perhaps that first post-doctoral role they’ve been seeking) or somebody is interested in acting as a joint supervisor on a new interdisciplinary PhD project.

Travel mug with RIS logo next to a corded microphone.

Another benefit of a Coffee Break is access to somebody else’s network: the person you are speaking to may not be the right fit for something you are seeking to do, but they may well know someone who is and be willing to match you up themselves. The Coffee Break is therefore a short-term mechanism for strengthening and deepening grass roots networks across institutions and disciplines, providing an infrastructure for the emergence of new collaborations in the longer-term future.

The Coffee Break began as an immediate response to the pandemic. However, we now recognise that the mechanism can have a longer-term role and impact. Hearing from academics who can help in finding new collaborators overseas is really valuable, especially for those early in their career. Armed with this knowledge, SULSA (the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance) launched the SULSA International Coffee Breaks in 2022. These Coffee Breaks connect researchers between Scotland and Germany and aim to seed new collaborations between the two countries with clear pathways to collaborative mobility and research funding.

We see a scheme that began life as a short-term fix can now have a substantial impact on the grassroots of research for Scotland’s institutions and our ambitions as a global research hub. We also recognised that many of these relationships can form by chance.

Dr Tim Storer, Director of Knowledge Exchange and Impact, SICSA; Dr Ali McIntosh, Director, SULSA – 17 Mar 2023

SICSA Education – Learning & Teaching Scholars Update

And that’s a wrap – the first cohort of SICSA Education L&T Scholars has now completed the programme!

Over the last nine months, 16 L&T-focused colleagues from eight different SICSA member institutions came together to develop scholarship projects and share their teaching practice.

Beginning with an online speed networking session, our Scholars then identified a number of scholarship ideas relating to CS Education that they might like to explore, and formed teams around the most popular ideas.

Online speed networking session


At our face-to-face meet-up in June, the teams then began to flesh out plans for undertaking these scholarship projects. Projects included looking at the challenges of teaching CS to students with no prior CS experience, dealing with plagiarism in programming assignments, hybrid teaching models, and determining what students struggle with the most when learning to program.

Each group was offered a support session with colleagues from the University of Glasgow’s Academic and Digital Development Unit, to discuss the shape of their projects, and possible routes to publication. For the remainder of the event, Scholars worked on developing their projects, with input from a facilitator. The Scholars have continued to work on these projects, with the aim of publishing papers based on the outputs.

The Scholars’ next engagement was an online workshop on Influencing and Leadership Skills, led by the highly experienced Dr Robin Henderson from MY Consultants. This is an area that many teaching staff are expected to evidence in promotion and fellowship applications, but it’s not always obvious how we develop these skills – that’s where Robin comes in!

Each Scholar was also allocated a mentor from another institution, with whom they were encouraged to meet at least twice over the course of the programme. Our mentors were all expert educators, who were able to share their experience and career insights with our Scholars.

At our final meet-up, Scholars provided an update on their scholarship projects and discussed their plans for publication. The intention is also for Scholars to present their work at this year’s SICSA Conference, which will be great to see.

This inaugural cohort of L&T Scholars has been amazing, and I hope that we will all stay in touch. The plan is to run the programme again next year, so watch this space!

— Matt Barr

Our final, online meet-up


HRI Winter school visit on embodied AI 2022

12 December 2022,

by Jacqueline Borgstedt, University of Glasgow

I am Jacqueline Borgstedt and currently I am completing an interdisciplinary PhD with the UKRI CDT for socially intelligent artificial agents at the University of Glasgow. My doctoral research on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) explores how augmenting social robots with haptic modalities affects users’ perception of and relationship with a robot. Moreover, I assess the potential of such multi-modal social robots to aid users in regulating their emotions during stress-inducing situations.

As an interdisciplinary researcher, I aim to bridge methodologies and technologies used across multiple disciplines such as Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction. To achieve this, it is vital to network and collaborate with researchers across multiple disciplines. Furthermore, it is vital to expand my skillset and get a better understanding of technical concepts and methods relevant for Human-Robot Interaction. I was thus interested in participating in a winter school that would allow me to expand my network in the HRI community and to gain a better understanding of such technical concepts.

After looking for suitable winter schools, I decided to apply for the HRI winter school on embodied AI 2022 at Gent University. The winter school was an excellent training opportunity as it attracted an international and diverse pool of researchers, which allowed me to establish novel connections and to meet potential collaborators. Moreover, participation in the program allowed me to engage with influential researchers in the field, whose work I have been following since the start of my PhD.

The program of the winter school closely aligned with my research interests in designing meaningful Human-Robot Interactions that have a positive impact on the individual user as well as the broader society. Some of my personal highlights included a tutorial on participatory design, which helped me to improve the experimental design of my next study. Participating in the winter school has thus had a direct impact on my research practices. Furthermore, there were multiple talks discussing the ethical and societal implications of implementing embodied robots in society. Discussing the ethical considerations of integrating robots in society is vital as researchers have a responsibility to consider how interactions between humans and robots can affect the individual users but also society in general. It was an amazing opportunity to discuss such considerations with other early career researchers and experts in the field. Finally, the diverse program allowed me to gain new technical skills.

At the end of the winter school, I felt better connected with my research community, fueled with enthusiasm, and full of ideas on how to improve my research practices. Without SICSA’s support this would have not been possible. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude for SICSA’s support and would encourage all early career researchers to attend a summer or winter school in their field.

SICSA Virtual Conference Funding: 14th International Conference on Agents and Artifical Intelligence

24 October 2022,

by Adil Ibrahim, Heriot-Watt University

Hi there! I’m Adil, a PhD student studying at Heriot-Watt University – Edinburgh. My research focuses on binary classification using artificial immune systems, and I use one of the primary immune algorithms, the Negative Selection Algorithm. It has always intrigued me to use artificial immune systems in data classification. My curiosity has always been piqued by how artificial immune systems can differentiate between self and nonself, depicting one of the main features of the biological immune system of our own.

For that to be achieved, there must be an affinity function that we could use so it works like the natural immune system. This affinity function has always been a challenge. In most cases, the suggested affinity functions did not work well, to the extent that many researchers concluded that the Negative Selection is not a reasonable classification algorithm.

I searched for a suitable affinity function and looked at the techniques used in bioinformatics. The protein sequence alignment schemes are used initially to measure the similarities between DNA, RNA, or protein to identify regions of similarity that may be a consequence of functional, structural, or evolutionary relationships between the sequences. So, I wondered if this could be the best affinity function to be used. So, I focused on the Negative Selection algorithm with bioinformatics protein sequence alignment schemes and used their mathematical techniques to build an affinity function required for the self and nonself discrimination in binary classification. The methods have been tested using datasets in the health domain to diagnose breast cancer and other datasets in different domains for comparisons.

My supervisor, Professor Nick Taylor, has told me about SICSA and the possibilities of getting support through their programs to attend a conference. So, as part of my research, I attended the 14th International Conference on Agents and Artificial Intelligence (ICAART 2022). Due to COVID-19, the conference was streaming online from Feb 3, 2022, to Feb 5.

The ICAART was an excellent opportunity for me as it brought together researchers, engineers and practitioners interested in the theory and applications in the areas of Agents and Artificial Intelligence.

The ICAART2022 was my first conference to attend as a speaker, and I needed to learn how it goes in such a contribution. The ICAART22 introduced me to many other researchers in different fields. The conference events and contributing to the discussions at the conference have expanded my experience considerably, bringing up several new research questions to explore since after.

It was a dream come true because the support I got from SICSA was highly fruitful, and I’m very grateful for that.