Cognition and Linguistics PhD Student Ulla Petti headed to Toronto, Canada, to work with Winterlight Labs on a project to detect and analyse clinically meaningful patterns in speech that occur prior to Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. Her experience of living and working in a buzzing new city environment increased her confidence, as she learned how communicate her work to different audiences and apply her linguistics perspective skills to produce valuable research data. Ulla’s contribution resulted in her receiving an offer of employment to continue her work with Winterlight Labs.

“I wished to work with this partner as their work is related to my PhD research, and I wanted to learn how my academic work could be applied in the health technology industry, and get the experience of working in a non-academic setting. I was interested in working on this particular project, as I had experience with similar projects from academic perspective, and I was interested in finding out how the industry approach differs and having the opportunity to discuss the challenges I’ve faced with peers. I was hoping to learn from people with different backgrounds through working together, and to be able to consult with colleagues and gain technical guidance. I also hoped to learn how a start-up in my area of research works, and what directions are relevant in the industry today.

My project was related to my PhD research, focussing on the changes in speech and language in Alzheimer’s disease. Changes in language have been identified as one of the earliest signs in Alzheimer’s disease that can appear years or even decades before the diagnosis. Part of Winterlight Labs’ work focusses on spotting those changes automatically for disease prediction and identifying the language features that could help track the change over time and measure treatment efficiency. In my fellowship project, I aimed to spot the changes in speech patterns in longitudinal data, as well as contribute to improving the data collection and analysis methods.

The aims of the fellowship were to understand the early changes in language in Alzheimer’s disease, to learn to analyse multidimensional longitudinal data, to improve the data collection methods from linguistics perspective, to understand how my PhD research can be applied in the industry, and to develop my technical, communication and teamwork skills.

The experience of working in an office environment was new to me, but since I had very supportive and helpful supervisor and office manager, I settled in very quickly when I worked at Winterlight’s Toronto office. Due to Covid, I had to start the fellowship remotely, and since the remote arrangement was not that different from the Covid-time PhD experience, I settled in smoothly, although there were aspects that seemed challenging at first. For example, I was a bit nervous about getting to know my colleagues and presenting my work and progress at the fast-paced Zoom meetings, but Winterlight was very accommodating and included me in their Zoom social events, which helped me settle in and allowed me to have a more casual conversation with the team. It also took me a bit of time to get used to working with 7- or 9-hour time difference with my colleagues and supervisor, since I wanted to contribute to team work and reply to emails quickly, but again everyone was very supportive and understanding, all the meetings were scheduled to everyone’s working hours, and I learned to be okay with sometimes taking longer to reply due to time difference, and keep a healthy work-life balance, which is also a skill I have wanted to develop.

One specific training that I found very useful was the induction from the company’s business development manager, explaining how a small health technology firm works from business perspective. This training helped me understand how the academic research relates to and differs from the interests of the industry, and what building a start-up in health technology is like. I also had a chance to attend the company seminars which developed my understanding of the cutting-edge research in my specific research area

The output of my work is related to data collection and analysis. I worked on finding out whether data analysis could be completed as effectively with shorter speech samples which would simplify data collection, and which language features could be grouped together for effective data analysis. I also researched a set of novel language features that Winterlight could implement in their analysis pipeline and presented the findings to the company.

The fellowship met my aims as I had a chance to explore a wide range of language features that Winterlight Labs analysis in their everyday work, and learn from the biostatisticians and machine learning experts how to tackle the challenges of complex data analysis. I could also contribute my linguistic knowledge to propose potential improvements to data collection and analysis. The fellowship helped me understand how my academic research and skills could be used in a non-academic setting and being a part of interdisciplinary team allowed me to improve my teamwork, communication, and technical skills.

I was able to provide insights from linguistics perspective based on my academic training. Although collaborating with a health technology company without a background in computer science or medicine was a bit frightening at first, I was glad to find that my knowledge and experience in linguistics was applicable and that I was able to contribute ideas to the ongoing projects. I was able to contribute my linguistics-related knowledge and experience to the projects, and propose future directions related to my expertise and training. I also feel I brought my enthusiasm for the project and interest in discussing the topic more broadly. I also engaged in social events and made friends I still keep in touch with.

Working in an interdisciplinary team taught me to communicate my work clearly and listen to what others are saying carefully to understand the topics outside my area of expertise, as well as ask questions if anything remained unclear to avoid miscommunication. I am very thankful for this experience, and I am sure it is very useful in any of my future work.

The fellowship had a huge impact on both my research and future career. I had a chance to build connections that allow me to continue the collaboration with the company in the future. I also gained new perspectives and skills for my research, and understand much better what academic research is needed in the area, and how it can be applied in the industry. The experience of living in a new city and working in a new environment has also made me more confident, which I am sure benefits my future career, and having the industry experience alongside the academia experience not only looks good on CV, but also helps me make better informed decisions about my career plans in the future.

I feel like I gained a lot of transferrable skills from being at the Winterlight Labs, from practical technical skills to communication and teamwork skills. From the technical side, I improved my programming skills in R and Python and learned some machine learning, which I can apply both in my PhD research and in anything I work on in the future. My communication skills improved through explaining my work and the questions I’m facing in different settings (meetings, teamwork, presentations, casual conversations) to people with different backgrounds. I can also transfer the experience of working at the start-up and the insights I gained into how this world works if I wish to set up a small company on my own in the future.

Most of all, I feel much more confident as I understand where my research, skills and interests fit in, and I have a much clearer perspective on both my PhD and future career. As my fellowship was closely connected to my PhD, I had a chance to discuss the challenges of the work with peers, which broadened my perspective and helped me understand the directions the industry is taking, and how academic research in the area could be applied. The fellowship was also a great opportunity to build connections in my field and learn to communicate my work to different audiences.

I would encourage everyone to apply to the Cambridge Grand Challenges scheme! I fellowship at a company that works in my research area, and it was an excellent way to find out what it would feel like to work in the industry, and if it’s something I’d like to pursue. It has been an invaluable experience and I would definitely recommend it to others!”

Ulla Petti’s fellowship with Winterlight Labs took place between July and December 2021

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