Find solutions through collaboration: Meet Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe

Chanuki Illushka Seresinhe (@thoughtsymmetry) is a doctoral researcher at the Data Science Lab, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick and the Alan Turing Institute. Chanuki’s research entails using big online datasets and deep learning to understand how beautiful environments affect human wellbeing. Her research has been featured in the press worldwide including the Economist, Wired, The Times, BBC, Spiegel Online, Guardian, Telegraph and Scientific American. Before returning to university, Chanuki had a diverse career that included running her own digital design consultancy for over eight years in London.

You can catch Chanuki on her soapbox on the Southbank as part of Soapbox Science London on 26th May, giving a talk entitled: “Beauty isn’t only in the eye of the beholder – computers can decode beauty too!”


SS: How did you get to your current position?

CS: It has been quite a journey! I was working for quite some time in digital design running my own consultancy. And, at some point, the work started to get a bit boring as the web started to get really “samey” in terms of interface design. I was eager to find something else that would be intellectually stimulating again. So, I decided to go back to university and study economics, including Behavioural and Economic Science (see reason why below). I then met my PhD supervisors to-be, Dr Tobias Preis and Dr Suzy Moat, when I was looking for an interesting project to do for my Masters dissertation. Through them, I learned about this new PhD programme about using big online data sets to understand human behaviour. And, I thought, how perfect, what a brilliant way to combine all my past experience working in the digital world with this new world of data. I am just in the last few months now finishing up my PhD in Data Science, at the Data Science Lab at the Warwick Business School. In the meantime, I also got this fantastic opportunity to be based at the Alan Turing Institute – the national institute for data science and AI. I started out on the Turing Enrichment year programme, where students spend one year of their PhD at the Turing Institute, but got involved with so many activities at the Turing (its is such an amazing place to be) that I was offered the opportunity to continue my stay there.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

CS: It is purely my deep interest in the subject that has driven me to pursue a career in science. When I was first at university in the late 1990s, I was often discouraged from taking a path that would lead to a scientific career by my professors, who told me that I would find it “too boring” or “too competitive”, so when I recently returned to university to restart my career, I was determined to pursue my passion. Fortunately the landscape for women entering scientific disciplines today is much better than it was even a few decades ago.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

CS: It has been really great to be able to conduct research on a topic that most people can relate to – the connection between beautiful places and our wellbeing. So, not only is the subject fascinating in itself, what I really love is being able to engage with so many different people about it and finding about how I might be able to relate my research to more practical aspects that can touch our everyday lives such as urban design.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

CS: I work in data science and AI and there is still a dearth of women as well as people from different backgrounds/ethnicities working in this field. AI is increasingly affecting all our lives, and it is imperative that we encourage more diversity, as we shouldn’t be driving decision making in this area by only a select part of the population. This will inevitably, and has already, lead to biases that can be harmful. A more diverse set of data science and AI researchers might pick up on these biases quicker and find ways to mitigate them.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day 

CS: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

CS: It still does not feel like a very collaborative atmosphere. I can see this is slowly changing but it would be great to see if the incentives in the system can change to encourage people to collaborate rather than compete. I believe we are more likely to find solutions to pressing problems in our society through collaboration rather than keeping our ideas secret from each other. For example, there is no incentive to publish null research findings, leading to biases in the literature as well as multiple researchers potentially wasting time on hypothesis that don’t go anywhere, with no indication whether anyone else has previously attempted the research.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

CS: Make sure you find a subject you are really passionate about researching. The time it takes to complete a PhD can feel very long and there will inevitably be many setbacks. So having a topic that you are passionate about can really help drive you! Also, try to get to know your supervisors in advance. Find out what they are like to work with. I have heard some horror stories so you definitely want to make sure you are comfortable with who you are about to work with for a very long time!



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