An interview with Dr Nick Cummins on changing careers, monitoring possible changes in speech, and artificial intelligence research

Dr Nick Cummins joined the Department of Biostatistics & Health Informatics, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London as a lecturer in July 2020. He was previously a Habilitation Candidate at the ZB.B Chair of Embedded Intelligence for Health Care and Wellbeing, University of Augsburg, Germany, where he worked on Horizon 2020 projects including susTAGE, DE-ENIGMA and TAPAS

His current research includes areas of behavioural signal processing with a focus on the automatic multisensory analysis and understanding of different health states.

Please can you tell us about your career before joining the Radar-CNS project?

My career has had two phases. Straight out of school in Sydney, Australia, I did a trade apprenticeship and became an electrician. I really enjoyed my time as an electrician, as once I was qualified, it gave me the chance to work and travel. I worked in Australia, the UK and Ireland during this time. In my mid-twenties, I decided I wanted a new challenge and went to university to study electrical engineering. My undergraduate honours thesis explored the use of artificial intelligence to find markers of depression in speech. I continued on with this research during my PhD and postdoc, which eventually led to my involvement in RADAR-CNS.

What is the focus of your work within the project?

My main contribution is assisting in the management of Work Package 8: Data Analysis & Biosignatures. I also work on research efforts exploring speech changes associated with the three different conditions. I am particularly interested in determining if there are condition-specific changes in how speech sounds, such as changes in pitch, stress and rhythm, rather than what the person is saying. 

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?

The multi-disciplinary and collaborative nature of the project. It is great to be part of such a motivated team in a project that can bring real benefits to people living with these conditions. I am really enjoying learning more about the different conditions and new technical aspects associated with the data collection. I have also had the chance to work with the Patient Advisory Board - it has been great to get unique and valuable feedback on my research, which I would never have got if I was not part of RADAR. 

What is challenging about your work?

A lot of my artificial intelligence research takes place on very ‘clean’ data – for example, speech recorded with high-end microphones in labs at the university. Real-world data that we collect in RADAR – participants record their speech on their mobile phones, which might pick up the sound of traffic on the road outside, to give one example – can ‘confuse’ our artificial intelligence models. Consequently, we need to approach our analyses differently to cope with data that is not as ‘sanitised’ as what we are used to. 

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of wearable devices?

Clinical and analytical research is only really just beginning to realise the advantages of collecting individuals’ health-related information using wearables. RADAR is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their usefulness in this way and to establish the value of such devices beyond their regular uses as fitness trackers.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work or life?

The major impact on my work has been the shift to remote working. As well as doing research from home, I do a lot of teaching, which is where I have felt the biggest impact. I have had to quickly adapt to online lecturing and tutoring, which has been challenging as almost all my teaching experiences to date have been face-to-face. 

Personally, it has been tough to be living in a country far from my family. Outside of work, I enjoy being active and, pre-pandemic, I went to the gym and swam regularly. It has been frustrating not being able to do these activities, but I have been making the most of the Bavarian sunshine by buying an exercise bike and having regular 'outdoor' cycles on my balcony!

How have you adapted to the new circumstances created by the pandemic?

With our participants already using wearables and our apps before the pandemic, RADAR is in a unique position to explore its impact on the mental and physical health of our participants. I am involved in many efforts within RADAR to use the data being collected during this time to help answer questions that this situation has raised. 

How do you mitigate the impact of the crisis on your work?

By keeping in regular contact with my colleagues and students and having a flexible attitude to the different demands this situation has placed on us all.