Richard Moulange is a first-year PhD student, supervised by Sach Mukherjee and Oscar Rueda and he joined the BSU in October 2021. Together with Sach and Oscar, Richard is researching how machine learning (ML) approaches can improve cancer diagnosis and treatment and is particularly interested in how transfer learning and causality can make ML systems more robust and generalisable.
What did you do before joining the BSU?
I’d already been in Cambridge for a few years before starting my PhD: I completed the undergraduate degree in Mathematics here and then did the Master’s course (Part III) focusing on statistics and machine learning. I also did a summer internship with GlaxoSmithKline looking at image processing and machine learning for high-throughput screening, which really got me interested in the biological and medical applications of mathematics and statistics.
What does a typical day for you involve?
At the moment, I’m working at home every day because of government guidance, but I’m looking forward to getting back to the office a few days a week when it’s safer to do so. I start my day by trying to get some of the more administrative tasks out of the way: things like emailing, planning which papers I want to read and checking the BSU page for updates from the rest of the Unit. This helps me to find longer chunks of time to focus on research-related work.
Since I’m only a first-year PhD student, most of my work has been reading papers. Last term, I learnt a lot more about transfer learning and causal inference, and started to code some simple simulation tools in R. These will hopefully make completing my first research project much easier because I’ll be able to use them to quickly test out different ideas.
I have two regular meetings each week, one with both Sach and Oscar talking about my progress and future directions, and the other with the rest of Oscar’s lab, where we learn about cancer biology and the different research problems related to -omics data. The whole Unit also gets together on a Wednesday morning for BSU Together and, after updates from the administrative team, someone from the Unit will give a talk about what they’re researching. We’ve also had a couple of people from industry come in to talk about their work and how it connects to current academic interests – these have been my favourite because I’m very interested in entrepreneurship. The first-year PhD students have also started having a regular coffee break on Friday afternoons, which I really like – it’s a nice opportunity to relax and just chat with each other about how things are going.
I’ve also started trying to arrange video calls with more researchers from other groups in the BSU, especially since not being able to get into the office very often has made it difficult to meet people. People have been very generous with their time and it’s been really interesting hearing about what others are working on, and seeing how my research fits into the broader research landscape.
What does your work space look like?
My workspace is very simple: it’s just my desk in my room. I’ve got a monitor and a laptop stand, which definitely help with my posture. I also have an app on my computer that reminds me to take a 1min break every 25min – I usually just stand and stretch or go and get a drink. This really helps me work, especially if I’m debugging code: even a short break is sometimes enough to get me thinking about a problem in a new way.
What is your favourite part about doing a PhD at the BSU so far?
Learning about new things and then discussing them!
It’s honestly great to have the time to dig deep and really get to grips with a complex area – without the worry about exams at the end of the course.
I’ve really enjoyed getting to know other PhD students too. Everyone is very friendly and despite the pandemic we have managed to meet up in-person a few times.
What is your least favourite part?
The biggest challenge so far has been the open-endedness of research and learning to work very independently. I have sometimes worried I haven’t made progress quickly enough, but both my supervisors and older PhD students have reassured me that this is just part of being a doctoral student. It takes a lot of time to understand a new field at a deep level, and that investment early on in a PhD is crucial to being able to tackle exciting problems at the cutting-edge.
What do you like to do when you’re not working on your PhD?
This year, I’m President of the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE), so a fair bit of my time outside the PhD is spent on that. CUSPE runs events for early-career researchers interested in how to connect science with policy work and how to make government more evidence-based. I like to go running, especially to Parkrun on a Saturday, and I also play the saxophone in Selwyn Jazz and in a quartet.
What advice would give to anyone considering doing a PhD at the BSU?
It’s a great place to do a PhD! It’s a very strong department, research-wise, but much more importantly, the culture seems really good. But when thinking about whether to pursue doctoral study in general, make sure that the topic you pick is one you honestly really like. Things can get tough during a PhD and knowing that you are researching an area that you genuinely enjoy thinking about and discussing is really important for self-motivation.