Where can people find you on social media?
My Twitter handle is @paulofrgarcia. I tweet mostly about Academia, education and pedagogy (particularly in engineering), and technology regarding embedded systems. My personal website is https://carleton.ca/paulogarcia/, which includes a complete educational/employment biography. I try to keep it up to date regarding ongoing and past projects, research outputs, etc. My LinkedIn profile is www.linkedin.com/in/paulofrgarcia; although I am not particularly active there, I respond to messages.
Where did you go to college and when did you graduate?
I attended the University of Minho, in Guimaraes, Portugal (I’m Portuguese). I graduated with an Integrated Masters’ (a compounded 3 years BSc + 2 years MSc) degree in 2011.
What were your college major(s) and minor(s)
My University did not have a major/minor system: students only selected one field of studies, and the curriculum was largely non-elective. However, my degree was in Electronics and Computer Engineering, which was a combination of electronics engineering (circuit design, physics of electricity, instrumentation, control theory, power electronics, signal processing) and computer engineering (programming, microprocessors, digital circuits, computer architecture).
Did you go to graduate school? (For what? Graduation year?)
Indeed, I obtained an MSc and later a PhD. My MSc was in Real Time Embedded Systems, and I graduated in 2011. I began my PhD in Computer Engineering targeting embedded systems in 2012, and graduated in December 2015: my PhD thesis was titled “Hybrid Hypervisor Partially Deployed on FPGA”.
Current job title: I’m currently an Assistant Professor at the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?
I remember watching Star Wars as a kid, seeing R2-D2 and thinking: “I want one of those!”. I was very disappointed when I learned what science fiction meant, and I decided I wanted to build robots, hence studying Electronics and Computer Engineering. I ended up falling in love with the technical aspects of embedded systems and pursuing that domain instead. Funnily enough, I’m now supervising 3 student projects on robotics, which allows me to have fun, playing with the old passion again.
Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.
Portugal is an example of many wrong things, but it is also an example of some very good things. Particularly, the education system is, for the most part, fantastic. I remember my first day of elementary school when my teacher taught me a lesson I’ll never forget. Standing in front of class, facing us, she raised her right hand and said “Everyone raise your right hand”. I did, and so did one more student, but everyone else raised their left hand: i.e., on the same side as our teacher, facing us. I had a few seconds of hesitation, when I looked around and thought: “Am I wrong? I don’t think I’m wrong…”. My teacher told us: “Most of you are wrong; you raised your left hand. So, first lesson: think! Never do anything without thinking, and think about everything long and hard”. That day has had a profound impact on every day of my life.
Later in my career, I was fortunate to work with wonderful supervisors during my post-doctoral years. After the challenges and struggles of a PhD, I was extremely lucky to be working with mentors that taught me a great deal, and who became good friends. Now a professor myself, I often think of them when interacting with students, and I try my best to emulate their wisdom and kindness.
Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?
Many! And, may I add, moments of doubt don’t disappear as you progress in your career. STEM is challenging. Regardless of your field, it is constantly evolving: you need to keep up to date with the latest technology and discovery. During my undergrad years, I remember the first time I failed a course at University (I had never failed a course before that!); it was a programming course, and made me think that programming was not for me. But I soldiered on, put in the work, and now consider myself a pretty good programmer. Disappointments and failures will happen at any stage of your career. During my PhD, I had far more paper rejections than acceptances, far more experiments that didn’t work then ones that did. I’d say tenacity and perseverance (along with a bottomless curiosity) are the most important attributes for a STEM career, and they are what allows us to overcome doubt.
Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.
Fresh out of high-school, ignorant of the differences between Computer Science and Computer Engineering, I enrolled in Computer Science. My first term was spent struggling with functional programming (Haskell), which I utterly abhorred. I transferred to Electronics and Computer Engineering in the second term, thinking “programming is not for me”, only to be introduced to C low-level programming and absolutely loving it. Many years later, whilst in a Post-Doc researcher position, I was working with a functional programmer, and came to appreciate Haskell and functional programming in general.
After two years as a Post-Doc, I accepted a permanent position in a private research center: my official title was “Senior Research Scientist”. This was not in my plans: I had always aimed at getting a job in academia. But my CV was uniquely suited to the job description, and the team seemed very nice at the interview, so I ended up accepting a position there. It was a wonderful place to work, with a fantastic corporate culture that really cares about employees, and I made good friends whilst there. I was eventually offered a tenure-track position at a University, and I decided to accept it, but my very short experience working in industry was nonetheless invaluable. Because of the focus on industrial R&D, rather than the publication-oriented research I was used to, I was forced to learn completely new research strategies and gained experience in technologies I hadn’t played with before. I hadn’t planned to move to industry, nor had I planned to move back to academia so quickly.
Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.
This is an easy one. My passion outside of work for nearly twenty years has been music; particularly, guitar. I was the lead guitarist in a hard-rock/metal band in high-school and during the first few years of University. Around 6 years ago, I changed to classical guitar, which I play almost every day (it does wonders for my mental health). I’ve studied music theory for the past ten years and, whilst not a formally trained musician, I consider myself competent.
One of the student projects I’m supervising is a robotic guitar player. We have three goals: (1) the robot should play pre-recorded music on the guitar; e.g., reading from a MIDI file. This is not particularly challenging, apart from the electro-mechanical part. (2) The robot should play along with a human player, harmonizing in real time, responding to any improvisation on the human part. This involves signal processing to determine what the human is playing, and a real-time processing algorithm that embeds music theory knowledge, to determine what the robot should play that will sound appropriate, without being overly boring (e.g., just playing the same thing as the human). (3) We’ll compare our hand-crafted algorithm with machine learning implementations (deep learning), trained on different genres: e.g., one for jazz, one for blues, etc., and see how well it performs when a human plays a corresponding genre (or even a different one!).
Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.
Don’t be afraid of change. If you’re just starting and you have a vision for your career path, know that reality will probably be substantially different. This is not a bad thing. Change forces you to grow and adapt. Most PhD students I know want an academic career. Statistically, this probably won’t happen for you. The job market for tenure-track jobs is saturated. But other careers are not “alternative careers”: they’re just careers. You can find fulfilment and enjoyment in something you’ve never considered before.
The world is a big place: don’t limit yourself. I’ve lived in 7 different countries: I studied abroad in 3 foreign countries during my MSc and my PhD (Slovenia, Germany and Thailand). I did my Post-Doc years in the U.K. I moved to Ireland to work in a private research center, and later to Canada to start my current position. Moving was not a burden nor an obstacle: it was a privilege, and I wouldn’t change a thing. If you’re in STEM, you have the most sought-after skills in the world. You can go anywhere, and combine travel, enjoyment, and personal development with your technical and career progression.
Have fun. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you’re doing it wrong. Your skills can be applied to myriad different applications and domains. Find what you like and be good at it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working for a Fortune 500 company, your own start-up, academia or an NGO, as long as you’re enjoying it, contributing to society, and constantly growing.
Last but not least, find the right people. There is little you can do on your own. Be it peers or mentors, finding the right people to work with will boost your outcomes and your happiness.