All posts by mbaxaap3

Endless possibilities…

Although it’s already March I wish you all a Happy and Productive New Year! Be it professional or personal growth, I wish you the best of luck in anything you put your minds to! Like I said in my last post, I would like to share with you a recent and exciting accomplishment of mine. At that moment I didn’t really know whether it would turn out to be a success or not, but now I do, so here it is: I got accepted for a Master Degree in Sound and Music Computing at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona!

It might not sound like such a great deal as I am in my final year so I was expecting to make a decision on my future. But it really is to me because of 2 main reasons:
1. I found a CS branch that I am very excited about;
2. I will get a whole new life experience in Barcelona!

So how did I discover this programme? Well, it was partly accidentally! I was mainly looking into AI related masters in Europe, and found a few interesting ones but I didn’t feel that sparkling desire for pursuing any of them. And then I started thinking that maybe I should work out what exactly it is that I truly enjoy the most – and my only straightforward answer was music. And as I have a degree in Computer Science and I like its technical side, I simply googled Music Computing and there it was!

The programme combines subjects like signal processing, machine learning and cognitive science to emphasise multiple perspectives of sound and music and allow researchers to use these in useful contexts. For example, they had projects like playing music with eye movements for people with disabilities or understanding various cultures through analysing their traditional music.

My first interest on the topic is analysing the relation between music and sentiments, as I strongly believe that music affects us in much more powerful ways than we can imagine. And because of that, I would like to research for new ways of aiding individuals who are struggling with either physical diseases, mental issues or just wondering what song to listen to perfectly match their mood. My final year project in simulating neurons spiking also sparkled my interest to better understand what is going on in our brains, so it would be quite interesting to also create a model of how music is constantly tuning the connections within our neural networks.

The university – Universitat Pompeu Fabra is not a huge one, but it is one of the fastest-rising young universities in the world and it is located right next to the beach of Barcelona. My programme is provided by the Department of Information and Communication Technologies and is highly interconnected to the Music Technology Group (MTG) – you can have a look at some of their very interesting projects and software tools: https://www.upf.edu/web/mtg/ongoing-projects .

Image result for Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Where the Universitat Pompeu Fabra is based in Barcelona…

The application process is mainly based on a motivational essay, your CV and your grades, along with an academic recommendation. It is not a very complex process, but you do need to show passion for the subject you want study. Looking back to the essay I have written for The University of Manchester, I remember that one of my long term goals at that stage was to create amazing stuff by combining technology with art. I guess I was quite right about that, wasn’t I?

In regards to moving to Barcelona, I guess I was waiting for this moment for a long time. Manchester has taught me a lot, but the most important thing is that when the time is to move on, you need to find the right place for you. And by right I don’t mean the place with the most palm trees, but the one where the energy feels right, where you truly connect with people and of course, where the work you’re doing excites you.

Before getting my acceptance letter from UPF, I was actually about to apply for other Masters on the same topic, so if you think that you might be interested, there are these other programmes that I have discovered in Europe: Music and Acoustic Engineering at Politecnico di Milano, in Italy and Sound and Music Computing at Aalborg University, in Denmark.

Finally, I hope that I successfully shared my excitement with you and you are now more curious to look further than your speciality or degree, maybe even create your own niche of research. The possibilities are literally and provably endless!

Third year project and future insights

Hey, I’m finally back with some more details about my uni experience. I am writing this in the last week of the term, i.e. the busiest week perhaps, but what can I say, one can only write when inspiration hits.

Although the last few months were not  quite as intense as previous years, in terms of coursework, deadlines (and the stress of dealing with all of them!) I can say that I’ve still been working a lot and now possibly in a more convenient and productive way. Additionally, whilst doing this, I’ve also had the time to reflect on my future options and desires, and on my own personal development.

The most important part for me this past term has been my final year project which I am quite excited about because it gives me the chance to learn about many interesting things that are actually meaningful and appealing to me. At the same time, I love that I am the only one managing the project’s organization, intermediary deadlines, along with the path and extensions of the main topic – that again, I chose.

Before getting into details, I really need to mention how happy I am with my programme tutor, Dr. Eva Navarro-López, who is not only an excellent mind and researcher, but also a wonderful human being. She is the most inspiring, motivating and sincere academic I have met and I do believe that my success in my third year project and perhaps my whole life from now on, will be partly thanks to her.

The project is on modelling dynamical neural networks, its purpose being to give a better understanding of how the information signals are spread in our brains and what are the appropiate equations and parameters to represent these processes. My particular research topic is the interaction of neurons with a specific type of helping cells, called astrocytes, as the exchange of chemicals between these two structures seems to have important effects on which neurons spike together and when. The simulation involves implementing some proposed differential equations in Matlab, plotting graphs of the evolution of the relevant chemicals and energy over time and interpreting the results in a biological context.

The project is very deep into the subject of neuroscience which I have always been curious about, so I am glad I took this opportunity to discover it. The Mathematics behind it is quite challenging and the biology seems fascinating mostly because there is very little accurate knowledge of how neural networks work or how some little cells working together trigger complex reasonings, thoughts, sentiments, memories, etc.

So far, I have read (and watched YouTube videos) about several sub-topics like the human neuronal system, neuron and astrocyte mathematical models, complex networks, non-linear systems or computational modelling, which could be some nice readings as individuals, as well. What I was slightly surprised to discover is the fact that people also developed artificial neural networks containing astrocytes and in some cases they can prove to be more efficient than the usual neural nets. So maybe one of my projects applications will be creating better artificial neural networks in order to solve complex computer learning tasks and push further the limits of Artificial Intelligence.

So, as I might have previously mentioned before, one of my future plans was to do research, mostly in CS ad AI, but when I think about it now, I guess the possibilities are not limited to just that. I could also potentially study more neural processes and complex systems within our bodies, which may be useful for industries like medicine and pharmaceutics, psychology, but also satisfying personal curiosities that probably strive in all of us.

And to leave you with another motivating curiosity, I will say that I am currently working on my application for a very exciting programme that may prove to unravel the main purpose of my life. Just look for my soon-to-be be next post, as I feel like, if it deserves such a close place to my heart, it also deserves an individual blog entry!

Till then, I hope you all had a lovely and peaceful Christmas holiday, and took the time to reconnect with  loved ones and with yourselves and finally, be ready to come back with fresh energies, goals and study thirst for exams (for us students)!

Hacking in Manchester and facial expression playlists

Second year is really tough for everyone, including me, but it’s almost over now and I’m back with a fresh entry about my last Hackathon experience, that just happened to be StudentHack VI, one of the most famous hackathons around here, in Manchester.

I’ve been to more than 10 hackathons around the UK, but the ones organised by The University of Manchester every year (GreatUniHack and StudentHack) are definitely among the best ones. Maybe I feel this way because I was familiar with the people and the vibe, but it’s definitely worth trying for yourself. And it’s a great experience to go and code along with your peers in an informal and actually fun environment. Even if you do something worthy of a reward or not. And the best part: you get tons of free food and swag!

I managed to build a cool project that I’ve been kind of thinking about for a long time. I initially arrived a bit late and realised I did not have a team, whilst most of the people were already seated at their tables brain storming ideas. I looked around and managed to find a few other, shall we say, “lost” people, whom I didn’t know, of course. But we talked a bit and decided to work together after we agreed to the idea of computing emotions and music. Well, something like that. We researched some APIs, and after something like 12 hours, we had a working website that recommended a hard coded Spotify playlist, based on your facial expression (Microsoft Azure API).

The goal was to log into your Spotify account and the algorithm would recommend a playlist from your own preferances, again based on the mood on your face, but also some tags of the songs. (There came in our creativity and personal reflections of how music features should relate to sentiments, which I found pretty challenging and fun.) We were close, but still needed some debugging to make it work. The final demo would only recommend some hard coded playlists that we found representative for the various moods (happiness, anger, surprise, fear, etc). But after all, that’s what hacking is all about! Making it “kind of” work! (Here is the trial link, you will have to select the guest session: https://playmymood.glitch.me/ .)

Although the project itself was not very difficult to build, I was quite satisfied with
1. the new awesome hackers I got to work with and
2. the awesome idea I got to work on.
And of course, improving my coding skills and enjoying myself. Not to mention that I even got to dance on “Despacito” somewhere in the middle of the night!

Further on, I would like to continue developing this project, maybe at some point this summer and who knows what will turn out of it. I am really interested in researching more in this music-sentiment association. I’ll let you know how that goes. Until then, good luck with exams and have a wonderful summer! And don’t forget to check the MLH website for some of the coolest hackathons! (https://mlh.io/)

Finding a balance…

I am writing these first few lines whilst attending a wonderful choir concert (Ad Solem choir) at The John Rylands Library in Manchester. I mention this because I like sharing beautiful moments with people and I hope you can understand the inspiring and uplifting vibe that motivated me to start this post.

I begin with my decision of pursuing ‘the arts’ more because I have been focusing so much on school and job stuff recently, and it’s important to find a balance. The library show reminded me of my last choir performance last December at my old high school; it was just magical. I also recently attended a delightful Salsa event in Manchester, organized by the Manchester Universities Ballroom and Latin Society. That was one of my longest cardio workouts with around 3 hours of non-stop dancing! And I would love to learn more about Salsa techniques because they are really worthwhile on the dancefloor or just for some mental and physical revival, if you wish. I definitely recommend the Sporticipate free sessions for beginners; the instructor –  Franklin, is a very cheerful and passionate man.

 

Another recent thought that I’ve been joking around with, which is probably common among students around the tough exam period(!) – is dropping out of university because of various reasons or insecurities, like not being good enough for the degree or not enjoying it enough. But what is enough?

Enough to be worth the stress, money and a decent amount of hard work, perhaps? Being away from family and friends? I don’t have a complete answer for these questions, but I will say that:

1. You can learn and live life at your own pace, it doesn’t matter as long as you enjoy the ride and…

2. Just because you are not finding something interesting, it doesn’t mean that you can’t find for yourself something that is. You are free to explore all kinds of various topics and interests.

and finally: “It’s okay if you still don’t know what you want to be when you grow up” (I’ve watched an inspiring TED talk on that, which you can find below: https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_calling ).

 

On top of this, life can also be full of surprises! And that’s what happened to me with the Mobile Systems course unit.  Although people had said to me that it’s a difficult and  you need to work really hard, I am really enjoying it so far. The reason for this is the fact that we started working with sounds and music files, which is a keen topic of interest for me, as you might have figured out by now! It’s cool to learn about what happens ‘behind the scenes’ of your beloved MP3 tracks and the lecturers,  Dr Barry Cheetham and Prof Steve Furber, are passionate and motivating. When I think that I was actually lucky to catch a place on this course unit, as it was full until the very beginning of the second semester – I’m really pleased and on it and enjoying it!

 

Another thing as a 2nd year student is that you start to think about where you might get summer jobs, and you definitely need to put some effort into the application process. There are various positions and opportunities that you can take, and you should put some thought into what type of job you want (finance, security, games, mobile, web, research, etc). I say this because what happened to me was that I got kind of distracted with lots of appealing technologies and companies and partly disregarded the fact that my goal is to apply for a  PhD and research Artificial Intelligence – so it would be  useful to find a position related to this area. This is something that I really want to do, whereas a few months ago I was thinking “I should get a summer internship, no matter what”. If you’re interested in my experience with applications and interviews, stay tuned because I might write another blog entry, dedicated to that.

Finally, I want to leave you with this beautiful colourful sunset picture of the sky over Manchester, it goes to show that it’s not always a classic blue sky that is beautiful!

P.S. I have recently submitted an entry for the Science Poetry Competition and I would appreciate if you had a look and gave me a vote. Thanks! 😊  (http://science-poetry.com/poem.php?pid=946 )

From fundraising to Brazil – for The Children’s Society

It’s been a while since my trip to Brazil last summer, but I would like to tell you about how I managed to get there without paying too much money and by committing to a wonderful cause at the same time. Now, it’s around the time when last year I started my journey towards the £2,800 and I can say that it might have been one of the most complex tasks I’ve managed to fulfill so far.

The whole thing was one of the Manchester RAG challenges (find more about them here: https://www.facebook.com/manchesterrag/) that I had discovered at the Freshers Fair at the beginning of my first year at university, also when the coursework was much easier and I had the time and energy to get involved with other interesting things! I thought about it for a while, and somewhere in October 2016 I decided that I want to raise money for The Children’s Society and go on the ‘Brazil Trek’. What was their challenge? Go on a ‘dangerous’ trek through the wildlife of a Brazilian rainforest in order to raise the target of £2,800 for the charity organisation.

So the fundraising started. My first thought was to create a Facebook page, which I did, and keep sharing and encouraging people to donate. That was somehow useful, but not at all as good as I had expected because people DO IGNORE you a lot on Facebook. There were some kind hearts who actually contributed and to whom I am still thankful and grateful. (Also, I’m sorry if I spammed too much, but it was for a good cause.)

Throughout the next months, there came some series of bake sales. I did COOK a lot (after earning a health certificate), but I also developed useful skills like talking to people, convincing (and begging sometimes), learned about selling techniques and how to SMILE nicely, despite the many rejections. They are not quite the usual skills a computer scientist would look for, but there will be a time when they will prove useful, maybe at some point I will have  my own start-up organisation and I will want to sell my software to companies. I think that any new experience adds up to your own character and makes you a richer person.

When I talk about selling, I don’t mean the actual exchange of goods, I mean selling my cause. So I was fundraising for the Children’s Society because they would help the most vulnerable children in the UK, from disadvantaged, abandoned or neglected to children affected by violence, bullying or sexual abuse. And I believed in my cause as I think that children are the most important ‘thing’ we should take care of because they are our future and they have the highest potential and energy to improve our world. (You can check out my fundraising platform with all my motivations and donations here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ana-pandrea.)

Rather than describing all the other fundraising activities that I organised, which were quite a lot (charity party in my hometown, concert, talent show, amulets sale to name a few…), I would like to only talk about my favourite one and 2 major benefits I got from this whole project.

My favourite activity was busking before Christmas in Bucharest, as I got the chance to meet with people from my high school choir and other wonderful friends who volunteered for my campaign. I relived the joy of our traditional Christmas carols and the magic of that time of the year in a bit of a different manner, a more noble and fulfilling one, as I was singing for those who might not have experienced such feelings in their whole lives.

The main benefit of this experience was the team that I was part of during those 9 months of hard work and the leaders who made it all possible, by giving numerous fundraising suggestions and forever encouraging us. We all vibed together in the final Brazil trek and although there were difficult times for some people, we enjoyed being with one another for the adventure of a lifetime, along with taking in some amazing natural views. It’s really nice to connect with such motivated and proactive individuals (especially if you are one yourself) as you can count that they will always do something meaningful with their lives and those around them.

A second thing that was really worthy for me was the opportunity to travel around the UK while going to weekend street collections. I would spend hours standing with a bucket in my hand and asking for spare change, but I would also wander around new places, take nice photos and perhaps meet fundraisers from other cities or talk to locals.

In this whole context, one might wonder how I managed to keep up with school and study and the answer to that is that it was a bit difficult. I got really busy at some point, I might have skipped a few lectures and more hours of sleep, but I would say it was worth the extra stress!

Getting to the trip itself, it consisted of  6 continuous days of trekking through a natural reservation south of Rio de Janeiro and was amazing through all its tight pathways and colourful birds, wide sandy beaches and all sorts of palm trees, friendly locals and awesome guides, delicious fresh fish, tasteful exotic fruits and strong Caipirinhas! Last but not least, it was delightful because of the cheerful, determined and fun spirit of my team, even after 6 hours of climbing up and down the beautiful hills.

To conclude, I suggest you take such a challenge because it’s a chance you don’t get too often and will definitely become a memory you will never forget! Like they say, anything that gets your heart racing is worth doing… and I can assure you this one does!

What do I do?

Hi, my name is Ana, and I do a lot of things, and I am passionate about each of them. Today I will talk about myself, some of my different “faces” and maybe some of my philosophies. If you keep on reading my blogs, you’ll continue to get to know me, for sure!

First of all, I’m a student in the School of Computer Science and I really love it.  I like building stuff and making it work, and I like solving problems – (good) hacking. My degree is i15039693_1282041421846533_8257215970254254257_on Artificial Intelligence but there’s something interesting to learn from each course or aspect of CS, and when you can’t find a good challenge you can just create your own! In my case, the truth is I do fall behind with my studying from time to time and I can’t really solve as many problems as I want to, not yet at least. But uni isn’t just about that. It’s also about getting to know yourself and trying out real life. (photo: hacking at GreatUniHack)

Here comes my second “face”: I am a people’s person, which is quite weird because I am also an introvert who enjoys spending a lot of time alone. However, there is no point in solving problems if yo16939171_754816208007048_5176513829649869409_nu don’t do it for other people. Coming to uni is the best opportunity for both working on your social life and devoting time to the community. That is why I became a fundraiser and a student rep for the school and also became a more talkative person who loves to party! My piece of advice is to pay attention and ask meaningful questions because everybody knows
something that you don’t and you never know who’s going to be your golden treasure. (photo: selling Romanian amulets for charity)

And finally I will reveal my third face; I am an artist. I’ve been an artist my whole life, and I continue to surround myself with art. I’m the one who dances until there’s no one left on the floor, the one who plays the guitar until 15385367_1234105463312422_4729332084887116603_oher fingers bleed, the one who paints with her whole body, the one who keeps on running because the beat feels so alive and the one who discovers a new type of art every day. Manchester is filled with all kinds of art; with its wide range of cultural attractions and there’s plenty of space for your own! (photo: singing in the gospel choir)

So the answer to the question “What do I do?” is not that obvious. I’m not 100% a computer scientist, and even if I wanted to be, I couldn’t. In fact, if I were one, I’d no doubt be working on a project now instead of babbling away on this blog. However, this is the career that best suits my personality and helps me understand my life as a whole. I might be too much of a Carrie Bradshaw for “Hack and the city”, but I think that being successful in your career isn’t as important as being you. Now, what do YOU do?