Outreach: maths week at Shotton Hall Academy

This week I had an opportunity to speak to some aspiring mathematicians about their future and to ask them to think about maths. Not just to answer the questions, and not to just ask ‘why’ without purpose, but to try and find a middle ground between the two. I also obviously tried to include some of the research the institute does, to tie it to my own research.

The first thing I asked the kids to do was to explain to me an example of using maths. Most of them came up with some interesting ideas that focused on measuring quantities and making calculations. I then asked them to come up with a definition. They all said similar things, all along the lines of ‘measuring, calculating, and using data’. Which is a great answer! But was not what I was looking for. ‘OK, give me an example of something that doesn’t use maths.” was my next question. A few hazarded some guesses and were all shown that maths IS in there somewhere! We agreed that a great definition of maths would be that it is simply problem solving. Everything else you do with maths is simply a tool to solve the problem with.

I then talked about earnings and aspirations of mathematicians (did you know that aside from medicine the maths degree is the best paid degree to have in the world?) and went into my own mathematical work. Not the modelling (bit too complicated for 15 year olds) but the actual calculations of the parallax. We went through an example and the kids had to answer the question themselves. They had to solve the problem, I didn’t spoon feed it to them. I think this made for interesting discussion.

That was the end of it, just time to wrap up (DO MATHS AT A LEVEL) and then to give them all a brain sweet for taking part so nicely. All in all I think it went well!

Going on an international conference: VSS 2015 in Florida

One of the questions I regularly get asked as a PhD student / research scientist is what it’s like going away on science business to conferences and the like. Well I thought I would share my recent experience with a conference in Florida, USA to hopefully answer the questions and let people see some of the highs (and lows) of conferences in general!

First things first, and it’s the question I get asked all the time about it: I did not pay personally for the flights, accommodation, conference attendance, or even food while I was there. If you were buying something non-essential (such as beer, or a trip to the gym) it comes out of your own pocket but if it’s something you need to ensure that you are at the conference and comfortable the university (so long as approved by your supervisor) will provide it.

The initial part of any conference is always rubbish: the travelling there, on your own. For me this time that meant a 1am alarm on Thursday morning, a taxi to the airport, a flight from Newcastle to Amsterdam, to Atlanta, to Tampa, which included a missed flight (through immigration controls) and about 26 hours without sleep. This is in my opinion the key worst bit of conferences away: Loneliness. This one wasn’t so bad because once we arrived I was staying at an apartment complex with many of my fellow lab mates and scientists, including Sid and Zoltan. We hired a car from the week (paid for) to ensure we could get to the walmart and back to the airport at the end of the week. It definitely worked out cheaper, but the driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road in 3 lane traffic got some getting used to.










Upon arrival we pretty much had time for a quick tea at a local restaurant before bed. Up nice and early in the morning for the first day at the conference. Sid, Zoltan and myself arrived comfortably in time to register, which was a very well oiled machine for a conference of thousands of scientists. You always get a name badge so you can talk to anyone. You just have to hope your interests overlap.











Now I imagine most of you are thinking ‘well yeah but hang about! You get to go to Florida, paid, for a week!?’. That is certainly an upside of VSS, glorious sunshine everyday. However the conference ran pretty much all day every day. So on no day did we get a ‘day off’ to just relax, or explore. That said at these things, particularly when there are literally hundreds and hundreds of different scientific talks, and thousands and thousands of scientific posters, you need to chop and choose which you go to, and make sure you don’t run out of steam. Our lab is fairly specialised, and because of this we all went to similar talks and posters, and in the sessions relevant to us we always had somebody giving a talk or presenting a poster. I won’t bore you with all the full details, but many of our lab presented, as well as other members of the institute, and we all did a smashing job (if I do say so myself!) Zoltan, Jenny and I had posters to present, while Sid (and also Ignacio, a long term collaborator of Jenny’s) had talks to give.












This sort of leads me onto the next bit that is very cool about being at a conference, even though it’s something small: having your name written down in the abstract book for all to see. You feel practically famous!

The talks themselves were all very interesting, and that wasn’t the only thing VSS put on for the scientists. As I’m sure some of you are aware there was a big hoohah about ‘the dress’ earlier in the year. Well the science behind it was explained by members of our institute (Anya, pictured below with Jenny) and some people wore the different coloured versions of ‘the dress’ including our own Jenny! This was at a general demonstration night, where all manner of optical illusions and tricks were shown and explained using visual science. I think this was the highlight for me, personally, as it also had a beach bbq with 2 free beers each!

illusionfromwrongside      Jenny_thedress Jenny_thedress2 JennyAnya_thedress

While I was out in Florida it wasn’t all just work work work. I got the chance to visit the local gym and have a train, as well as catch up with an old friend who had moved out here some months before, which was a lovely extra bonus. The fact you had to pick and choose what talks to go to to ensure you didn’t miss anything you were bothered about also meant you occasionally had a couple of hours free…Ample enough time to catch a bit of sun by the pool!









After that however it was time to go home, which meant another lonely flight back, and back to reality (where you have to submit a receipt for every purchase if you want the money back!).

As conferences go, VSS 2015 was a particular gem, due to location and the fact my fellow lab mates were there. Sometimes it can be a lot worse, with a lot of time spent in your hotel room on your own in the cold with nothing but a book to read to keep you entertained! But the whole conference thing is most definitely a perk!


Shotton Hall Academy – Where can my maths take me?

Last week I was asked to go into a Peterlee academy (Shotton Hall), and they asked me to give a talk about maths in the workplace. Obviously the field that we study in uses a LOT of maths that most other fields don’t so the school were keen for me to come along and impart some of my knowledge. During the day I spoke to about 100 students, giving a half hour talk and answering any questions they had. I covered some basics of maths in science, such as statistics that are needed, and how any scientific job (and in fact, pretty much any job) massively benefits from having a good mathematical grounding.

I then went into a bit more detail about my own specific research, showing the kids some of the David Attenborough 3D footage from micro monsters (the teacher was pretty scared of the 3D tarantula!) and talked the students through the different angles and geometries involved in creating 3D footage. The teachers said that the kids were all engaged and even talking about Maths in the break, so I must have done something right! I enjoyed myself as well, not very often I get to talk for half an hour about my work without interruptions!

Paul explaining 3D maths to children at SHS

Paul explaining 3D maths to children at SHS

The children paying attention as I go through the details of 3D angles

SHS thanking paul for his talk

SHS thanking paul for his talk

I even got tweeted my thanks!

Moving on St. Aidan’s RC sixth form

Continuing the outreach of the lab into another week, this week I spent a few hours at St. Aidan’s sixth form, where I did my A-levels. The head of KS5 (i.e. A levels), Mrs H. Miland, asked me to come in as one of the St. Aidan’s past success stories, to impart some wisdom of what I did in their shoes at their age to the year 12s. I explained what I did as a neuroscientist at Newcastle, and also how hard I had to work to get to the position I am at now. I explained that were it not for the hard work (and it was very hard work) during year 13 to get the A levels I got I would not be in the position I am in today. It gave me a nice chance to reflect on my own career to date. And unfortunately for anyone who thinks talent alone will suffice you couldn’t be more wrong. Hard work is what makes the world go round and gets you into the positions to have the career you want.

The sixth formers certainly liked it, asked me questions about myself and I got a very kind email from Mrs. Miland thanking me for a job well done. A successful bit of outreach!

Kevin Durant (a famous basketball player from the USA) put it very well:

“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard”

Big Bang Event Newcastle

Last Friday I helped out at the Big Bang festival at Northumbria University. During it we had many different schools approach our stand and it was my job to engage them and get them talking about the brain. We began with discussions on what the brain was actually made up of, and did the children know that the brain gives off it’s own electricity?! We can measure this using some special technology. After the talks we got some volunteers who would put on the headsets, and attempt to use the power of the brain (and the electrical signals from it) to move a cube on a computer screen. The concept went down a treat, and everybody got a brain sweet or a pen for coming to say hello. Hopefully it will have inspired some young scientists to learn more about the brain!

In other lab based news my most recent paper submission came back with some revisions. This is good as it means it wasn’t outright rejected and I can make some changes before Aniketa (a volunteer student) starts in a couple of weeks time to collect some data on a different experiment. I have also had another play with the eyetracker this week (I think we need some more equipment before I can get going on my experiment however), and worked on converting the footage from Sky into stereo 3D to be displayed!

It’s all going well, full steam ahead!

Placement at Sky

For the past 5 weeks I have been spending most of my time out of the lab, on a works placement/internship with BskyB, the company that part sponsor my PhD.

I have had a fantastic time with the Sky people, and learnt a lot about the intricacies of post production, and also the various compression and editing techniques used by Sky.

While down there I got a chance to work at Telegenic, a camera company that Sky uses for it’s sport broadcast. They showed me the amazing trucks and equipment that they have to use on a regular basis (see below) and gave me the chance to work as an assistant rig tech during the Heineken cup final. I also did convergence for one of the 3D cameras during the Everton vs Man City Premier League game. This involved changing the camera orientation electronically from the truck, to change the interaxial distance (the physical difference between the two cameras), which affected how much depth there was in the scene, and also the ‘toe-in’ of the camera, which determines where in the scene is in the screen plane and what goes in front and behind the screen. Telegenic work with a certain depth budget, and the technology tells you if you’re getting close to exceeding to much depth, or too much in front or behind the screen. That was very interesting. It was also fascinating to learn about the nuts and bolts of the rigs as we stripped one down and cleaned it. I was particularly careful when the guy I was working with explained how much money the different parts were worth!

All in all it’s been a brilliant few weeks away. I got some content for an experiment I’m beginning to code up for and I’m very much looking forward to getting back to science for the next few weeks!

Scanner 2 Camera checks In the Scanner

The inside of the truck was very interesting, full of gadgets and gizmos to ensure the picture was as good as it could be.

Cleaning the rig Check the camera is OK 3D Mirror rig

Pulling apart and putting back together the rig was a fun but very scary experience. The gold strip in one of the photos sells at £100 per cm! Lots of money involved in the rigs. The middle image is what happens after cleaning the rig. It is booted up and tested to ensure that all the different pieces work properly, and calibrated to be at optimum performance!

Ready to help with the rigs!Perks of the job

As a rugby nut one of the massive perks of being assistant rig tech (because nothing went wrong with the rigs after set up) was I got to see the Heineken cup final. Even if I did look a bit daft in my ‘radio cans’!


3D Creative Summit

Last week I spent two days in London attending the annual 3D creative summit (3DCS) at the British film institute (BFI). It’s a place where all of the big shots from the world of 3D production (such as Sky 3D, Pixar and other companies like the company that worked on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) come together and showcase their newest content and discuss just how they did what they did, and the decisions they made. In amongst this different 3D only companies, who provide rigs and technicians, were present, with their equipment, to show people a more in depth look at how different 3D works.

I was amazed by the different talks. Highlights for me were a pre-recorded interview with James Cameron (of Avatar fame) and also Sir David Attenborough. I was also impressed by the showcases from Sky 3D, as well as Pixar and Onsight productions (a 3D company which helps with many different productions throughout the year).

Panda 3DCS

Here we see Onsight productions explain more of their 3D film about pandas. While filming the crew had to go through the same procedure as the staff and wear panda outfits (complete with urine smell) while in the enclosure. As you can see it led to quite an interesting image!

I spent a good hour talking to some of the staff at Onsight at their rig, learning a lot about the subtle differences in 3D production and camera terminology and the more lab based research world I come from.

However the thing I was most impressed by were the autostereo televisions. These are ‘glasses free’ 3D television. And they’re going to be a game changer, in my opinion. Brilliant 3D without the glasses just grabs you immediately. Immersive and entertaining and deals with many of the problems that current 3D displays have to deal with. At 3DCS 2013 they were talking about how it was coming and it would be the next big thing. Well here it is. And I can’t wait to see what happens next year (and when they get cheap enough I’ll definitely be buying one!)

Avatar 3DCS

While blurry here, if you had two eyes and were watching the television the impression of 3D was truly captivating.

And the one and only Brian May was there. See, 3D can be cool too!

Brian May 3DCS

Eye tracker training

The week after we had been to Nuremberg for a demonstration on PlusOptix PowerRef 3 we had a gentleman come in from Eyelink to show the Eyelink 1000 eyetracker system. This systems differs from the PowerRef 3 in many ways.


On the plus it makes about as accurate measurements of gaze location, and measures much more regulary (10 times more than PowerRef 3, at 2m/s measurements).

On the negative side it is much more expensive than the PowerRef3. And because it does not use the standard distance from the camera for the eye needs a setup and calibration step.


Fortunately, ION has bought one of the eyelink eyetrackers them selves for the entire lab so price does not come into it. During the two day training session we learnt how the system worked (measuring the pupil in relation to the corneal refraction) and had a practice at setting up the system using a premade track experiment. The equipment seems easy to use and quite user friendly, with a very good GUI (graphical user interface). One problem is that with the remote version (which we planned to use in an experiment, where the head isn’t on a chinrest) the system can only measure monocular gaze location, not vergence. This will be a slight issue but not a very big one, as combining the PowerRef3 (which we are in the process of buying) with the eyelink 1000, will allow for our experimental designs to be completed as we hoped. Below are two photos of setting up the eyelink system before calibration (this involves ensuring the camera has the pupil in the square shown on the GUI, and is in proper focus for the pupil and corneal reflection). I am very much looking forward to getting involved and seeing how it works with our experiments.

Nuremberg – PlusOptix PowerRef 3

This week Jenny and myself took a flight to Nuremberg (via Amsterdam) to visit PlusOptix to view their PowerRef3 ( http://www.plusoptix.com/lang-en/accommodation-meter.html ). It made a pleasant change from being in the lab everyday to get on a plane and look at some equipment (I was very excited).

We arrived and were greeted by Ralph, an employee of the company who took us to look at the equipment.

The idea behind the PowerRef 3 is to use a mirror system to shine infared light into the eyes and record the reflections from the back of the retina to determine both each eyes position (and hence gaze, from which VERGENCE can be measured) and also the refraction of the eyes (which is a way to measure the ACCOMMODATION). We are planning the main study of my PhD to involve looking at the decoupling of the two cues above and so were very impressed by the equipments accuracy and ease of use. The clever way PlusOptix do the calculations is to insist the camera is located one metre away from the eye for the distance the infared light travels. This means that calibration (which I am told by Jenny is a nightmare with conventional eyetracker technology) is not required, as everything is calculated from measurable numbers in relation to this distance of 1 metre.

Jenny and I discussed the mathematics behind the data, and created some matlab code to run our own evaluations on the accuracy and reliabiliity of the data with regards to a theoretical ‘perfect’ case and we were astounded by how similar the results were. I am very much looking forward to getting the lab a PowerRef 3 to run our experiments with.

As a closing note it is worth mentioning that the people at PlusOptix from the boss all the way down to the general workforce were polite, kind and interested in saying hello and talking to us. Ralph, who gave up two days to look after us, and Christian, who I had been in contact with before heading over there, were very generous and helped make the couple of days away be much more enjoyable!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Before Christmas started I had a hectic week or two.

First up was IC3D at the beginning of December. First time on a Eurostar, first visit to Belgium and first international conference. I though the scientific conference was very well done, designed and implemented by scientists, for scientists. Made some good connections and had some good and interesting conversations. The overriding theme was more engineering based than I would have chosen, but I can’t fault the conference. The final day and a half was the professional conference, where a lot of networking took place which I unfortunately as a PhD student was very low on the list of priorities. However I did get to visit Galaxy studios and experience Auro (which is called immersive 3D audio), very impressed and it will certainly be the next big thing when cinemas can afford to get it installed and more content is created for it! I came back with one standout idea from the conference, and if I’m lucky hopefully will have another experiment out of it!

An important part of research which I hadn’t really thought about is to ensure that the next lot of minds decide to continue in the scientific field: You can’t just sit in your little bubble, do science and find stuff out, you need to interact. In doing so I have taken a Psychology third year undergrad on as a project student, Patrick, and I am working with him on an experiment I came up with in Liege at IC3D. In it we want to compare the size of a stimulus to the stereoscopic depth, and see which cue (if providing conflicting information) is the overriding one, stereo or size. To set up the experiment took a lot of complex mathematics working with congruent triangles and trigonometry, and the computing code took a little time to sort out some teething issues with displaying the card correctly, but had the bulk of the experiment done before Christmas.

Then followed a lot of beer and too many mince pies over the Christmas holidays.

After coming back (and vowing to lose the stone I put on over Christmas) I have since typed up some explanation to the project Patrick and I are doing and fixed some of the computer code. I am going to continue to get the experiment set up and sorted, and also hopefully submit a paper to JoV soon. I am also waiting on a couple of things before I start my next experiment up, so it’s all go!