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Working for SAILS

Leiden University's interdisciplinary research programme SAILS funds young interdisciplinary scientists working at the intersection of AI and other fields. How do these researchers experience the work?

'SAILS makes me feel well embedded in an AI community'

Computational linguist Matthijs Westera is an associate professor and, at the intersection of AI and language, conducts research on the role of questions in communication. 

What did you find attractive about this position when you were looking for a new job?
'That it is content that is right up my alley. My bachelor's and master's were entirely focused on AI. After that, my PhD research focused on linguistics and I did nothing in the computational field. Then I did postdoc research in computational linguistics in Barcelona, during the period when deep learning was on the rise. But in that job, I again missed the humanities, gaining deeper insight into language and people. Then this position came along, whose official title is also "Humanities and AI"; an ideal combination for me.'

In what way does the interdisciplinary nature of SAILS come into play?
'That mainly comes along during the weekly seminars, which focus on the blending of AI with other disciplines. There, you hear what is going on in the wider field of AI, and I think I would not get as much of that without such meetings. In terms of concrete interdisciplinary cooperation: together with Leiden lawyer Anne Meuwese, I am researching AI techniques that can be used to make legal government documents accessible to a broad group of researchers. The network ensured that we found each other.'

What else does working at SAILS and Leiden University provide you with?
'You come into contact with researchers you would otherwise be less likely to get to know. For example, Leiden administrative scientist Bram Klievink works at another faculty, but I know him through SAILS. And in turn, he introduced me to his faculty to give a lecture on ChatGPT. The network makes it easy for people to reach me with questions about my field. That is nice. In short, through SAILS, I feel well embedded in an AI community, and I work with a fantastic group of people with a lot of substantive knowledge. Furthermore, as an AI professional, I like to have good computing power at my disposal. Leiden offers an excellent computing infrastructure, with a competent helpdesk that has time.'

‘The environment is really nice and friendly’

SAILS researcher Hazel Doughty focuses on computer vision, trying to let computers automatically understand videos and what people are doing or how people are performing a certain task.

How did you get to know about SAILS?
‘That was when I started interviewing for a system professor position, and obviously one of the places I was interviewing was here at Leiden. Particularly, the interdisciplinary collaboration of SAILS appealed to me because I'm not focused on a specific domain of videos, I’m interested in working together with any research field where there’s a problem to tackle.’

Could you give an example of such a problem?
‘In the Leiden University Medical Centre, they’re doing a project on monitoring circadian rhythms of animals and seeing how light affects the sleep of animals. The research is being done in Artis, which is a zoo in Amsterdam. The researchers want to know what happens to the sleep cycle of animals when a light is left on in the sleeping grounds and what happens if the light is off. They need video monitoring for this project, because you can't have a person system watch the animals in the zoo as they're going to behave very differently. I’m helping with the video analysis, trying to see whether they're sleeping or whether they're doing other activities.’

What advantages do you see regarding the interdisciplinary character of SAILS?
‘Because I don't focus on any of these specific video domains, sometimes we end up inventing problems that don't actually exist. You think of a cool problem to solve, but it's much nicer to have this founded in some reality. So having people with different problems that maybe don't know how to do some automation of their image and video data is nice. And it's also just very cool to see what else is going on at the university partly contribute to those other projects as well. Also, SAILS has these seminars every two weeks where they have different researchers give a presentation, which is good for the visibility of your own research. For example, after my own presentation the LUMC contacted me to discuss collaboration possibilities.’

Why would you recommend SAILS and Leiden University as an employer to other early career researchers?
‘I think the environment is really nice and friendly, especially within the computer science department. Everyone's very open to just having a chat about their research, or to collaborating. And the interdisciplinarity of SAILS definitely facilitates making all sorts of connections across departments. Which is not only great for my research but it's also somewhat necessary if you look at it from a funding perspective. Funding organizations NWO really like interdisciplinary collaborations, and quite rightly so.’