This article was edited by SPRITE+ Research Associate Dmitry Dereshev, with responses and edits from Associate Professor of Digital Technology and Mental Health Elvira Perez Vallejos.
The spotlight today is on Elvira Perez Vallejos – Associate Professor of Digital Technology and Mental Health at the University of Nottingham, and a SPRITE+ member. Some of Elvira’s latest publications include:
How would you describe your job to a 12-year-old?
I try to make sure children’s rights are respected online in the same fashion they are respected offline. My work influenced an amendment to the UK Data Protection Act 2018 to ensure that personal data from children is not harvested the same way as adults’ personal data.
When children access the online world, they should be protected, and that is what I do. I engage with children and younger adults to understand their main concerns and translate those concerns into policy recommendations. I also work with older adults (aged 65+). Both children and older adults are considered vulnerable groups. I am pushing for these two groups to be more protected. I would like those groups to have more agency and knowledge, and to feel more literate to make decisions online.
In my experience children tend not to lie about their age if they know that they are going to get a safer service. Most 12-year-olds I worked with say that they would prefer a service that is tailored to their age, and not to be exposed to violent or otherwise inappropriate content. There may also be some age-based protection from bullying or inappropriate language. We know that children like to be protected from that, so they probably would not lie about their age if they can get those protections. If the service is not available for their age at all, however, they would lie to get access.
Is there support from industry for this kind of change?
Personal data is an important asset for many of the online services. The more of it they collect, sell, or attribute to specific people or groups, the more predictions they can run which helps improve how their systems work. Recent films like “The Social Dilemma” showcase how companies benefit from social data. They also showcase the level of manipulation that online users are subject to when they engage with social media.
I work in mental health, and we know that young girls who engage in social media can have their anxiety and depression levels go higher, and that is not healthy. Children nowadays are over-engaged with digital technology, and we do not yet understand how that impacts socialisation or emotional wellbeing.
With that we are trying to impose responsible innovation practices on social media companies, to highlight to them the kind of effects their services have on people, and to take some responsibility for that. It may be extremely exciting to work on social media technology, but everyone should also think about the unintended effects that technology might have. Taking this responsibility might not be in the best economic interest of those companies, but someone must do something about it, nonetheless.
This is like Fair Trade, where you can choose to buy products with guaranteed ethical practices around companies producing those products. We are hoping that in the future there will similarly be more ethical options to engage with social media and news feeds, so that they are more respectful and user-centric, and do not have negative effects on users’ mental health.
Many older adults do not have a choice when it comes to online services – they must use them, but they are not comfortable with financial transactions online or with online banking. They lose their autonomy – what does that do to their wellbeing? Maybe 20 years from now we will look back and be horrified by the current practices in how industry is using personal data.
Could you describe what you do during a typical workday?
My work is managing research projects, getting more funding for more projects, and doing a lot of supervisory work. I do not do any teaching.
I do lots of PhD supervision (I currently have 10 students), write grant applications, and write and review papers. There is also a lot of networking and linking colleagues with specific networks. I answer parliamentary enquiries and requests for comments.
Managing such a workload is about organizing the activities well. And now with the COVID crisis, universities released a lot of colleagues on voluntary redundancies, so I have also become a personal tutor for 3 students (I have never done that before). I am also an internal examiner of several Master students… there is lots of admin work too.
What training/experience did you have at the start of your career?
I graduated in Spain in psychology, then did a Masters in psycholinguistics. What first prepared me for my work was an award from Marie Curie training network, which exposed me to a lot of labs throughout Europe. It was highly multidisciplinary, and an eye opener.
I have then switched from psycholinguistics to speech perception – subjects that have nothing to do with each other. We were looking at speech-to-text technology and understanding how the brain was able to decode the acoustic signal into a meaningful linguistic message. I was also a Fulbright scholar for a year in New York at Colombia University. This was also an eye-opener with a lot of experience – I learned to adapt and be flexible. After that I did a postdoc in Japan, and then came to the UK to do more postdocs.
I have been working for the University of Nottingham for the last 12 years. My last contract was a 5-year contract as an associate professor, doing research for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) on health and technology. We are working on the renewal of that grant for 5 more years. I am legally a permanent employee of the university, but I am still on research contracts that have an ending, which is extremely challenging. You need lots of resilience to keep doing that, but the experience I have obtained is amazing. That experience put me in a position to be able to talk to many different disciplines, and I think that is a great skill to have.
How did you get into your current role?
My first postdoc after Japan was a 2-year contract looking at hearing aid satisfaction in older adults. It was about understanding how this technology was satisfying the needs and expectations of users. The whole university got restructured at the time, and I was made redundant. Through the re-employment services, there was a postdoc on mental health – children with early signs of ADHD, and I thought: “well, I need a job”. I started doing that, and I really enjoyed working with children and families.
From there I moved to a Senior Research Fellow in Horizon – an institute for digital research. That is where I started working on the ESRC grant looking at citizen-centric approaches to social media analysis. I arrived there being able to talk to people about the technology, but at the same time represent a user’s perspective. From there we did the UNBIAS project (led by Nottingham). The project focused on perceptions of fairness and bias for children and young people. We applied for a second call, and we are now working on RE-EnTRUST (led by Oxford). This project looks at children, young people, and older adults. What I am doing now is like my first postdoc after Japan – I am looking at how technology meets user expectations, and how it can be more friendly, and more respectful of the user’s needs.
What do you wish you had known when you started your career?
I wish I had a better mentor. A mentor is someone you can trust, who is much more senior, and is a very important figure. In the academic setting, a mentor can show you how to apply for grants. Grants can be overwhelming for a beginner – they take away your sleep and your time. But when you are working on a grant application as a part of a team that is well-supported, it becomes easier to produce such skilful work. There are some formulas for grant writing that work well, and you need someone supporting you to master them. Whenever you fail, a mentor can encourage you to move on.
No research idea ever gets funded the first time. You must refine and improve it and submit it to the next call. This requires resilience and consistent work. A good mentor can provide good advice in this regard. This is a very important element for successful researchers. It is so easy to feel that you are not good enough, that everyone else is better, and that chances of getting somewhere are low, so you need that support.
What would you recommend to people who want to follow in your footsteps?
Being a researcher is precarious. You must move from project to project, sometimes doing not exactly what you want to do. But in each project, you will learn and gain amazing skills. I never chose to move from researching hearing to mental health – I had to – but I learned so much that now I am an associate professor in mental health and technology.
Every project is like a piece of a complex puzzle, and it is up to you to ensure that each piece fits well with the next one. It takes effort to make it so, but I would like to encourage everyone to be open to change, especially if you are an early career researcher, and explore different avenues. Nowadays funders are looking for very multidisciplinary teams, which means you must complement other team members. The more skills you have, the easier, and the more likely it is that your set of skills will complement someone else’s. That is the main message: build resilience and keep gaining skills in different areas.
Also, work with people you can get along with, people that are generous, and can give you their time and attention. You will be spending lots of time together, and communication must flow. If you work with people well together, the work can suddenly become effortless, while working with some others can be hard. My advice is – do not waste your time with people you do not get along with; focus on those who make your work productive, and who can be supportive of that work – that is a win-win situation.
What troubles did you have progressing through your career?
Being a woman and wanting to have a family – that is a big obstacle, unfortunately. I was 30 when I was doing my first postdoc (in Japan), and I wanted to have a family. My partner was there with me, and we decided to have a child. The funders were not happy with that, and I had to quit. I came back to the UK, 6-months pregnant, with no job, and that was grim.
Coincidentally, the 2nd child I had was when my university got restructured, and I was made redundant. The uncertainty of what I was going to do was challenging. Children also take much of your time and attention, so balancing an academic job with being a woman with a family is arduous.
This also brings guilt. I think I am doing lots of work to protect children online, but am I protecting mine? Am I giving them enough attention? Am I being there for them? Am I emotionally available? Am I too stressed? – Academics need to keep reflecting on that balance and take time off. I make sure whenever I am extremely busy to make the next week a bit lighter.
It also helps to be able to say: “no, sorry, I can’t”. That is difficult for academia where we tend to say “yes” to everything, where everything is exciting, and has potential to move you forward. It is a challenge.
I always missed having good role models. There are lots of amazing female professors with no children. I think bringing up a family brings different challenges, and if you do not experience that I think you cannot be as supportive to the people who do. I always wanted to have a female mentor who had a family and a child. It was quite a barrier to find good role models.
Every time I had a child my career slowed down for a couple of years. Now my children are 10 and 12, and I can really work the hours I want or need. If you have children, you do not have much time, so if you only have half an hour to produce something, you really focus. I think that academics who have family responsibilities become much more efficient.
What one stereotype would like to dispel about your job or industry?
I think people glamorise academia. For those who do not have a PhD, having one wows them. Once you have that PhD, and you have a “Dr.” in front of your name – it might sound like a revolutionary change in your life. I think in terms of expectations that can be quite disappointing.
It is a misconception that in academia you have the time to read the latest news and reports. I do not think I have the time to read things that I find interesting – I am only reading to review something, or when I am writing a paper, or a section in a grant application – all my reading is targeted. I never have the pleasure to say: “okay, I am going to look at this journal for the latest articles, I am going to have a cup of tea and spend the next 2 hours reading what I find interesting”. For me that is a luxury I do not have, because there is not enough time during the day. I know only a few academics who have the time to enjoy that. There is no time, there is a lot of pressure, it is all about funding, papers, Research Excellence Framework (REF), and overall a lot less glamorous than some may think.
Being a researcher is extremely tough – there is no job security until academics get permanent positions, you jump from project to project, and it is difficult to have a life, to settle, to have a family. So, when you complete a PhD as an academic, you get the highest formal education you can get, a low salary, and very precarious working conditions. That is something that not many people realize – it is difficult to be a researcher.
How would you describe your research or business interest in relation to SPRITE+?
I understand SPRITE+ as a network that brings together researchers interested in trust, identity, privacy, and security (TIPS). Both of my projects (UNBIAS and RE-EnTRUST) are part of that. I am also a co-investigator of 2 NetworkPluses: Human-Data Interaction (HDI), and eNurture which looks at mental health and the digital.
The topics that the network covers are very relevant to what I do, and I know there is focus on responsible research and innovation. Within Trustworthy Autonomous Systems Hub (TAS) I am the Responsible Research and Innovation Director, and I feel that the support SPRITE+ provides to researchers is in line with our principles of creating a caring and responsible culture.
I think protecting and supporting early career researchers is part of what it means to be responsible when doing research. I have seen so many researchers struggling because of low salaries, short contracts, having very authoritarian principal investigators or line managers, etc. I feel like I always want to know what SPRITE+ is doing, because the research aligns with what I do, but also because I want to support the work SPRITE+ does to support researchers.
I encourage PhD students in the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training to join SPRITE+ to be part of the community, and because I feel like SPRITE+ holds a lot of the future talent who may become professors in TIPS one day.
How do you hope to benefit from working with SPRITE+ network?
SPRITE+ always asks its members to share resources and tools, and I am keen to contribute to that, and to see what others contribute.
Being part of the community, it is important to network to find people you can get on with very well, and to find research teams that bid for money in the short or long term – SRPITE+ presents this opportunity. I feel like all the communications are direct and clear, the principal investigator is a woman, and I like that, the principles on which SPRITE+ runs are commendable, and I would love to support that. I think SPRITE+ is ethical and has great values.
Which of the SPRITE+ Challenge Themes can you relate to from the job that you do? How does it impact your role?
I think “Digital Vulnerabilities” and “Accountability, and Ethics in a Digital Ecosystem” – I can relate to all challenge themes, but those two are the most relevant to my work.
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