Nina Deliu joined the BSU in November 2020 as a Research Assistant and is now progressing to a Research Associate role. She works with Sofia Villar on improving the statistical methods and theory in adaptive clinical trials design. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, she began and continues to carry out her role remotely. Read on to find out more about Nina’s background, current research interests and goals, and her daily routine.
What did you do before joining the BSU?
I joined the BSU during the final stage of my PhD in Methodological Statistics, which was conducted between my home University (Sapienza University in Rome), and two institutions I visited; the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, and the Computer Science department at the University of Toronto. During my PhD, my research was focused on statistical reinforcement learning methods and applications in biosciences.
Prior to my PhD, I worked for two years as a biostatistician in a clinical foundation (GIMEMA).
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I am integrating the reinforcement learning paradigm (i.e. a machine learning and mathematical framework for optimal sequential decision making), for the design of adaptive clinical trials. Design aspects such as randomization probability or sample size are adjusted within the trial based on interim data (e.g. a patient’s response to treatments).
My goal is to explore and develop new algorithms and statistical methods, or theory, able to preserve statistical guarantees, while also taking into consideration patients’ benefits, thus making a trial more ethical.
My methodological research is inspired by the numerous challenges arising in healthcare applications (e.g. adaptive clinical trials or the emerging mobile-health area) that are characterized by a sequential nature. I strongly believe that the methodological progress should go along with the concrete real-world needs, and be not “not simply good, but also good for something”.
What does a typical day in your role involve and what keeps you motivated?
My typical working day involves four main activities: general management, reading relevant papers, coding/analysing data or doing math computation by hand, and meeting or interacting with collaborators.
However, there are some days in which I prefer to fully focus on one activity (e.g. because of deadlines) without getting distracted by additional tasks or meetings. Being able to achieve that and ending the day with a step ahead for a project, even small or not as expected, is what makes me feel more satisfied and motivated for continuing what I am doing.
A research job is made by taking one small step after another one, and a relevant point to take in mind is that a sequence of failures or inconclusive results is eventually followed by a success.
What is your work schedule?
My typical work schedule starts every day at about 9am with a coffee – my morning fuel! I then check my emails, my daily (and weekly) agenda, important deadlines, and I then build my list of priorities for the day and try to meet them as close as possible. During the morning, I generally focus on a higher number of tasks, but less challenging, trying to make sure that my afternoon is entirely devoted to the most demanding activity.
What does your workspace look like?
Aside from the constant presence of my computer, and a pen and notebook, my workspace is always in evolution and is continuously changing. Especially during the current period of remote working, I rotate (e.g. weekly or monthly) the place I spend the majority of my time working. But I admit that before the pandemic, for some periods of time I needed to change office, work from home, or work from a café. I realised this habit makes me more productive, creative and more excited about starting my working day.
What is your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
There are many aspects of my job that make me love it.
One aspect is the flexibility and autonomy of organising my working day and integrating my extra-curricular activities based on my needs. If one day I wake up without the concentration I need for a task, I can decide to take a break for a yoga session or to read a book/newspaper, and delay it to a more ideal moment.
Another aspect is the continuous learning and growing process I go through. This is made possible by alternating different projects, regular interaction with old and new collaborators, and the constant flow of new ideas that characterises this environment. This rarely makes me feel trapped in a routine, and makes me enjoy my work every day (or almost every day!).
The other side of this flexibility, is that many days or many outcomes just don’t follow as planned because of unexpected new tasks or unexpected results. If this happens, I change my daily agenda or the direction/path of a project. Thus, the price I need to pay for a flexible job is to have a flexible attitude.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
The dark side of my attitude towards my job is that if I am sharing the same room or environment with my laptop, I will end up working. To avoid this, I typically opt for outside activities, such us cycling, doing some yoga in the garden, or simply reading a book in a park. Another activity that refills me with a lot of mental energy is cooking, especially if the final result meets my or others expectations.
What advice would you give to anyone considering your role?
One piece of general advice for people considering this job is to never stop organising your daily agenda, with working priorities and extra-curricular activities, also allowing for reasonable flexibility that would avoid potential frustration caused by unplanned changes.
A final note I’d like to mention is the building of a good network of collaborators, which can offer a direct or indirect guide, and allow you to express and understand your interests. Without this, I would probably not be part of the BSU right now.
Blog post by Nina Deliu