Interview: Statistics Lecturer Luke Tudge

by Alex Masurovsky

M.A. Student, Berlin School of Mind and Brain

Luke Tudge is a cognitive neuroscientist who defended his PhD thesis on the topic of methods in saccadic eye movement research in 2017. He is a graduate of the Berlin School of Mind and Brain at Humboldt-Universität and is known to the current Master and PhD students in the program as a guru of statistical methods and programming languages. He and his partner had a new baby in August 2018. Luke sat down with me to discuss how he landed in Berlin, problems with the research industry, science fiction and plans for the future.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was originally conducted in October, 2018.

Your Research Gate profile says you are interested in the “the intersection between the reflective mind and perception.”

What I’ve always found puzzling about human beings in particular is that we obviously have loads of things we can do without particularly reflecting on them: picking stuff up, manipulating objects, walking around, manipulating things. We do all those pretty easily and in similar ways to animals: focus on whatever’s interesting, handle it, look at it. But it seems like there is another layer to human cognition in particular, which is one that can also monitor those automatic actions and reflect on “what am I doing now,” “what am I looking at,” “what am I even thinking now,” and monitor them to check whether they fit with some more abstract goal.

You’ve experienced the phenomenon where you’re on autopilot for awhile and you start walking somewhere and you find actually, you’re walking somewhere else. Then you notice and you think, “oh shit I’m doing this wrong.” And humans seem to able to just reach into their own minds, if you like and say “oh, that’s wrong” and start doing something else.

Why did you use a visual search paradigm to study this phenomenon?

I thought that visual search is maybe a nice toy, an easily controllable environmental task where you can set up these kinds of situations where there is an automatic way of doing things, but there is also a contextual appropriateness and inappropriateness.

The basic way of getting at it that I tried to apply in my PhD is with distraction. You give people a fairly automatic task to search for a thing, but there are occasional things they should not look at. You have to trade off the automatic just searching for this thing, with the monitoring of inappropriateness: when am I looking at the thing that I should not be looking at. It turns out that people actually find that reasonably difficult, I guess because eye movements and looking behavior is fairly automatic, like the Stroop phenomenon and so on.

You took a number of years off between finishing undergraduate and starting your PhD. What did you do during that time?

Artwork by Maryam Roayee (PhD, Mind and Brain) — drawn in less than a minute as part of an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London.

I finished my undergraduate degree in 2004, in the UK. I had a lot of debt when I finished university so I just found whatever job I could to pay that off at the time. I did translation work and some language teaching, the sort of stuff you can do as an English speaker abroad.

I did a one year stint [in 2012] in the UK at this place, the University of Reading [pronounced “Redding”]. It’s tempting to mispronounce it as “University of Reeding.” My father used to taunt me about that, you know “why are you going to the university of reading, did you not manage that in kindergarten?” They have this quite interesting master’s program called Research Methods, which was great, back then. I learned quite a lot of programming. When I started my PhD it was pretty useful to be able to do that straight away.

How did you end up in Berlin for your PhD?

I came back to Berlin for my PhD for no really profound reason. I guess Germany invests quite a lot of money in education and there is a lot of opportunity to get funding for PhD work here, more so than there is in the UK. I got accepted at the School of Mind and Brain and they offered a fairly good stipend with no strings attached, so I went for it. I was pretty happy with it.

Why are you as a scientist paying to publish your own work? In any other field, if you were a journalist or fiction writer, you’d sell your writing.

Why did you decide to stay in Berlin afterwards?

I’d like to tell you some profound reason why I stayed in Berlin, I guess I did some teaching during my PhD and that kind of slowly took off as a way of making money. I got some other teaching contracts with other universities and then quite a few with the Humboldt, and that became my job, really. It’s been working out so I stuck around.

Is the scientific publication industry dead?

I think maybe its days are numbered as a way of getting your work out there. Of course, still many universities and other agencies judge you on how many publications you’ve got in special journals, it’s still a big thing. But a lot of people are just putting [scientific] material on their websites. It’s becoming a more accepted way of doing things and in the end it makes sense, it’s more open.

The Open Science Foundation is a pretty good place to put your stuff up, but I haven’t really bothered doing that. But I think it’s pretty good, from what I’ve seen of it. You can make a page of all your projects from start to finish and put up all your materials and everything. This is much better than just having the finished article.

Are you against scientific journals in general?

It’s more the formalities behind it, reviewing and so on. Also the payment structure is pretty stupid. Why are you as a scientist paying to publish your own work? In any other field, if you were a journalist or fiction writer, you’d sell your writing.

You wouldn’t worry about quality control, if everything switched to self-publishing?

Lots of published work is pretty awful, its quality control is not really working in that way.

What kinds of research have you been working on lately?

I haven’t really been carrying on doing much research work. I do mainly teaching now.

It’s worth taking some time to recognize what your own strengths and weaknesses are. I think teaching is one of my strengths, but steering a bigger research program is not something I’m so good at.

I’m not totally out of research in the sense that I’m still an advisor on a few projects. But all of my advisory work is in data analysis, or in design of experiments, or methodological stuff. I don’t think I can really see myself going back into carrying out full research projects on my own initiative.

I could kind of envision is doing some research that is connected to teaching, about teaching methods, though it’s the sort of thing that’s practically quite difficult to do research on. What kinds of ways of explaining the same statistical principles are most intuitive for students.

You seem to enjoy teaching.

I do, I like it. I guess it’s just nice to do something that I’m reasonably good at, and it seems to work out, and that seems to be useful. That’s I think for me the main killer with research. With my teaching, the feedback is a bit quicker and a bit more obvious. Some of my students, they go get jobs in startups and they have these great programming projects and it obviously works out well. In research it’s extremely rare that you see anything work out.

Is most research a waste of time, then?

What I think justifies a career in research maybe in the end, what you’ve got to keep in mind if you’re getting demoralized about it is, that you might not be the person that ends up with anything particularly useful, but that’s not necessarily that you are wrong, or you aren’t good at it or you picked a topic that isn’t interesting. It’s just the way the field is. There are so many topics that are out there and there are so many ways to approach them that even if you do really well and you’re amazing, the chances are you just won’t pick the thing that turns out to be really useful and exciting, and that’s just bad luck. But you’re still part of an overall system that is occasionally producing something.

It can be a tiny part of something that fits in with a more general body of work. It’s useful for something.

Does your deep knowledge of statistics help you truly understand that?

With my teaching, the feedback is a bit quicker and a bit more obvious

If you looked at the base rates and put yourself in the right kinds of reference categories you’d find that the probability of significant discovery in pretty much any field is pretty slender if you’re starting out a research career.

What this I hear about you having written science fiction?

I think there is one story that got published quite awhile ago. People can go read it. It’s called “The Interpreter.” It sort of combines my interest in cognitive science and what I was doing at the time, which was translating and interpreting. There are some other stories that I’ve written and trying to improve. There is stuff that I’m working on, I don’t know if it’s really science fiction but broadly speaking, science stuff.

Is that something you’d like to continue doing?

I’d like to, yeah. It takes a lot of time. It takes me a lot of time. There are some amazing writers out there that can just sort of hack it out and they produce these great stories really quickly. But that one took me a little while to write.

There are some other stories that I’ve written and trying to improve. There is stuff that I’m working on, I don’t know if it’s really science fiction but broadly speaking, science stuff.

The main thing for me is finding not just the time but time to concentrate on something. A lot of the time I’m doing data analysis or programming something and I end up concentrating on that quite a bit and it takes a bit of time to switch to doing something else.

Anything you want to broadcast to our extensive readership?

Open science is great, just generally being open is good way to learn things and make sure other people get you right, but I don’t think I need to plug that. There is nothing of mine I would like to plug, except: if any institution wants private teaching, I’m still doing that. I’ve had a few contracts where some research group or institute want to learn something, they contact me and I give a workshop on it.O

Originally published in Charité Neurscience Newsletter, Vol. 12, Issue 1

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