David Black

Novel approaches to teleoperation and human computer interaction in medical robotics
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have always been interested in not just creating a device or solution that works for a certain application, but in understanding the problem at a fundamental level and finding out why and how things work. This is partly why I did Engineering Physics for my undergraduate studies. During that time, I completed several work terms in research environments, both at a university lab and in advanced development at Carl Zeiss Meditec AG in Germany. I also did two capstone projects in research topics with different labs. Through these experiences I knew that I greatly enjoy research and wanted to continue pursuing it. I also just love learning, so continuing my studies beyond undergrad strongly appealed to me.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I have lived in several places in Europe, USA, and Canada, and have traveled widely elsewhere, and I am convinced that Vancouver is the best place on Earth. Studying at one of the top universities in the world while having an untracked wilderness of spectacular mountains and ocean right at our doorstep is absolutely unique to being a UBC student. In addition, much of my family lives here, and I had previously greatly enjoyed my work with the UBC Robotics and Control Lab, so staying at UBC was almost a no-brainer for me. It really feels like home here.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

During one of my co-op work placements, I worked with my now PhD supervisor, Tim Salcudean, at the Robotics and Control Lab (RCL). I developed a strong interest in some of the research being carried out in the RCL, and found that Tim’s style of supervision and the way the lab was run really clicked with how I like to work. Tim is a world leader in this field, with many great connections and opportunities for collaboration and internships, and the UBC Electrical and Computer Engineering graduate program and its ecosystem inside engineering and also computer science has a number of other fantastic faculty, staff, and students. Not only does this form a great network of talented people who collaborate and help each other with research, but it is also inspiring and motivating seeing the many interesting projects and spin-offs coming out of this program.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

I have been in Vancouver for a while, so it is hard to say what surprises me. Yet, even after undergrad and the start of my PhD at UBC, I continually find new spots around campus: secluded green spaces, beaches, scenic views, First Nations art, interesting architecture, and little cafes. After so long at UBC, my best surprise is that there are still many surprises.

Studying at one of the top universities in the world while having an untracked wilderness of spectacular mountains and ocean right at our doorstep is absolutely unique to being a UBC student.
What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I hugely enjoy the research—thinking about questions or approaches that probably few others have ever thought about, finding creative solutions, trying them out, and sharing the results is incredibly stimulating, fun and rewarding. I am also lucky in that my work is fairly multidisciplinary, so I can be working on a control system, then programming it to display on a HoloLens, developing a communication system over 5G for the data, and discussing a novel force sensing technique all in the same day. The process of theorizing, simulating, designing, building, and finally testing in such a variety of fields, for one unified project is certainly what I enjoy most, and makes every day very interesting.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

We will face, and indeed are already facing, unprecedented global challenges where creative solutions and unity will be a necessity. I think the way we live and work will change dramatically, and my challenge will be to be adaptable and ready to apply myself and my background to make a positive difference wherever I can as new issues arise.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

Both in Engineering Physics at UBC and now in my current program, I have been exposed to a broad range of fields, including mechanical, electrical, and software engineering, communications, controls, and physics. While I am no expert in any of them, this breadth has allowed me to work on multidisciplinary projects independently or as a leader, able to communicate with all team members, and rapidly learn more about specific aspects. This adaptability will be key in approaching an uncertain and constantly morphing future.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

Being involved in internships, capstone projects, and extracurricular collaborations and design teams during undergrad gave me the opportunity to experience working in research, large corporations, and startups. This gave me the perspective to make a choice about grad school versus work, and also gave me a head start in research and other applied skills so I could hit the ground running in a PhD program. I thus recommend embracing any opportunities that come your way, and I endeavour to do so myself as well.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I love spending time in the mountains, ideally going fast. From October to June I ski and speed-fly as much as possible in the Sea to Sky backcountry, and in the summer I paraglide, speed-fly, rock climb, trail run, and kitesurf. The area around Vancouver is a vast playground just waiting to be explored. I also enjoy spending time with my family and girlfriend in and around our beautiful city, and traveling with them when global pandemics allow.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

I believe there are three primary aspects to having a successful and enjoyable experience in grad school. First, though it is a lot of effort and is sometimes stressful or frustrating, if you have a topic you’re motivated and excited about, it does not feel like work. So find something you are truly excited about and can see yourself spending all day, every day working on for 3, 4, 5+ years. Second, having a great supervisor and lab environment is absolutely essential, not only for your day-to-day life, but also for the prestige and productivity of your studies and the connections you make for the future. If you can, try to get to know the lab before you commit to spending several years there.

Finally, so you do not go crazy working all the time, make time to have fun, ideally doing something active outside. You usually may not feel like you have time, but it is important to make time. This keeps you fit and healthy but also makes you feel better, and boosts productivity enormously.


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