This Sussex Life: Alice Torjussen, PhD student. "I would love to work with dogs every day"
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 8 November 2019
Alice Torjussen came to Sussex as a foundation year student and, beyond her expectations, is now studying for a PhD in Animal-Computer Interaction.
I completely messed up my A levels because I was playing too many video games. I was predicted A*A*B and I got BCD, so it averaged out at three Cs, which is exactly what you need to do a foundation year at Sussex. I was meant to go to Lancaster, with Loughborough as my second choice. But when I missed out on those I thought, where could I go? I have some family in Brighton and I thought, oh, this sounds all right. Now I look back and know that coming here was the best decision I ever made.
My original offer was for biomedicine, but then I called up again and, because I enjoyed computer games, asked if I could switch. I thought I could do computer science with artificial intelligence because that allowed me to do all the biology I liked as well as the computer science. This was despite the fact that I had never done any coding and my maths grades were poor.
It was such a turnaround in a year. I took a maths module in my foundation year and it was my highest mark at over 90 per cent. I went from not understanding any of it to acing it, and now I have even been asked to teach it. I had never really been into studying. I would clean my bedroom rather than study. Now, if it’s something I am passionate about, I will go hard. I won’t mind how much time I spend doing it.
I was also lucky to have a Sussex sports scholarship. I’m a keen badminton player – I was number two in the country for my age when I was 14 - but I never wanted to be professional. When I came to Sussex I got back into it. I captained the Women’s Badminton Team and, with Theresa Huang Wun Yan, won bronze in the British Universities and Collegues Sports (BUCS) nationals for two years.
I went for a Junior Research Associate internship at Sussex in my second year when I heard that one of the opportunities being offered was to do with animals and technology. I love animals. During my holidays I worked at Woburn Safari Park. So I contacted Dr Charlotte Robinson, a lecturer in engineering and design, who gave me a summer project that looked at how assistance dogs interacted with technology.
I helped Charlotte to design the study, which involved testing a load of buttons designed for disabled people, such as for light switches and to open doors, on assistance dogs. We were looking at what kind of feedback they needed to understand how the button worked. As people, we know if we hear it click, or it goes up and down, that we have correctly pressed a button. But dogs don’t necessarily understand that.
Charlotte asked if I’d like to help her write a paper. I said, yeah, sure. My JRA time had already gone and I wasn’t being paid for it anymore, but I spent the week before term started staying up until 3am to write a literature review. The paper was presented at the Animal-Computer Interaction conference in 2018 in Atlanta and, because by then I was on track to start a PhD, the University was willing to see it as an investment to send me to Atlanta with Charlotte. It was crazy, and so much fun. It was so cool to meet people I’d referenced in the paper and to speak to people who were doing what I was doing.
We wrote about the importance of not only using “expert” dogs in your studies. If you get an already well-trained dog to press your button, you can’t tell whether it’s effective design because the dogs are really smart. But if you ask another dog who hasn’t been trained and they can’t do it, it means it’s not really a button for dogs. It’s only a button for smart dogs. The paper was about how to select your participants for your studies. If other people are developing a dog video game and get ten smart dogs to test it, then when they market and say that every dog can use this game, that’s not really accurate.
I would love to work with dogs every day. Now that I have started getting into this field, I would like to work in industry and help to make technology for disabled people. This is tech for dogs, but also people. It’s such a big field of research and, at the moment, there are so many gaps in our knowledge.This summer I worked alongside two undergraduates and Charlotte, who is now my PhD supervisor, to design and build a treat dispenser for quadrapeligic individuals.This was shown at UbiComp/ISWC 2019 in London.
I didn’t know I wanted to do a PhD until it was offered to me. If you ask my family I would be the last person in my entire extended family to ever do a PhD or anything academic. If I hadn’t done the JRA, I imagine how different my life would be. One opportunity led to so many others that were handed to me. I am so grateful to everyone else who has helped and encouraged me, including my second PhD supervisor Judith Good.