From Epicurus, Bioinspired Machine Learning and Happiness - Visiting Professor Eleni Vasilaki

Eleni Vasilaki

Eleni Vasilaki has been Inge Strauch Visiting Professor at the Institute of Neuroinformatics at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich since September 1.  

Greek-born Eleni Vasilaki is a British scientist in the field of Bioinspired Machine Learning at the University of Sheffield, UK. Since September 1, she has been Inge Strauch Visiting Professor at the Institute for Neuroinformatics, University of Zurich and ETH Zurich. The goal of the Inge Strauch Visiting Professorship is to present well-known women in research as role models to the next generation of scientists. Vasilaki is the second visiting professor at the Faculty of Science, following mathematician Laure Saint-Raymond. 

You are the Inge Strauch Visiting Professor at MNF. This visiting professorship aims to present renowned female researchers as role models to the faculty's young scientists. How do you feel about being a role model?

Eleni Vasilaki (EV): I am not a fan of the role model concept and have no wish to be one for several reasons. For one thing, in many areas I am certainly not setting a good example, for instance, when it comes to the topic of work-life balance: I love my work, my work is my life.  But I also dislike the idea that other people should become or would like to become a copy of me. You can't change people; you work with what each person has to offer. That's why I see myself as a mentor -  as someone who encourages team members and supports them in developing and getting the best out of themselves.

What are your personal goals for your time as Inge Strauch Visiting Professor? 
EV: Clearly, I want to be able to leave something behind at the end of my time as a Visiting Professor, perhaps in the area of "unconscious bias" – a process or guiding principles. I am still working on various ideas, but this is a good opportunity to compare EDI processes at the Universities of Zurich and Sheffield and cross-fertilize ideas. I would be happy to mentor early career researchers that need advice to obtain, for instance, their first permentent academic position. Due to my own experience, I am able to help most when it comes to UK academic positions.   

What activities do you have planned besides the public lecture on “What reinforcement learning tells me about happiness” on November 12th? 
EV:  I proposed the new block course ''Introduction to reinforcement learning’’ which, subject to approval, I will teach to Informatics students in February. I also seek opportunities to contribute to other UZH courses on related topics. Further, I am working on various research topics with colleagues at the Institute of Neuroinformatics. For instance, I am extending our recently published work in Scientific Reports co-authored with Dr Natacha Vanattou-Saifoudine, Dr Wolfger von der Behrens and INI Director Professor Giacomo Indiveri. I am also reaching out to other colleagues of INI, MNF and UZH interested in Neural Networks and Artificial Intelligence. Besides this, I have suggested a lecture on racist Artificial Intelligence, to be delivered by Dr Shakir Mohamed, Google Deepmind. It will be organised by ALBA; the network towards equality and diversity in Brain sciences ( Its purpose is to raise the awareness that machine learning is not free from bias. For instance, if you use data that contain bias, the outcome will also be biased. There is a need to control for bias in Artificial Intelligence methods.

When did you decide to pursue a career as a scientist?
EV: None of my parents was a scientist: my mother was a teacher, my father a captain on a merchant ship. My mother encouraged me to choose any profession I wanted and my father told me that the only important school topic is mathematics. Becoming a scientist was a process over several stages. On every step and level, I always had and still have the feeling that I didn't know enough, and I always have more questions that I want to find answers to. Both my parents supported me in every way they could in becoming a scientist.

Did you have role models in your field and who supported you regarding your research career?
EV: I am repeating myself by saying that I am not a fan of the role model concept. But certainly, some people have helped me or influenced the way I do science. Thanks to EPFL Professor Wulfram Gerstner and the environment he provided me, I eventually started having confidence in myself as a scientist. I also had a lot of support from Professor Carmen Sandi, who was my "against the leaky pipeline" mentor, also at EPFL. At the department of Computer Science, University of Sheffield, all new academics are assigned a mentor. My mentor, Professor Rod Smallwood, a Computer Science Emeritus Professor, introduced me to some of my very best collaborators – which was a great help. I have many people to acknowledge for positive influences in my development.

What is your key message to a young person who wants to pursue a career in research?
EV: Make sure to research a topic you are passionate about because it is demanding and requires persistence. In return, it offers freedom and flexibility in a way that most jobs do not


Calista Fischer