A PhD, and the Olympic Games

Earning a Ph.D. is quite an achievement all by itself. Yet, while doing his Ph.D. at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, Adam Scholefield, 28, found the time to become a professional water polo player and take part in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Scholefield—who did his Ph.D. on image restoration algorithms—is finishing a postdoc, at Imperial College London, that is focused on combining multiple digital images to generate a single, higher-quality image. While Scholefield now intends to concentrate on his research, he says the lessons he learned through sport are valuable for all walks of life, and for science in particular. Science Careers talked to Scholefield about how his two careers unfolded and complemented each other.

These interview excerpts were edited for brevity and clarity.

In sport, you’re always thinking, ‘What could I have done better?’ 

Q: How did you get into sports, and into science?

A. S.: I started swimming before I can remember, so around 2 or 3 years old. I have two older sisters and they both started playing water polo when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I watched them and wanted to play, but I was told I couldn’t start until I was 10. So I started on my 10th birthday. Then, growing up, I always liked math and physics, so I studied those subjects and then chose to do engineering at university.

Q: What was it like to take part in the Olympics?

A. S.: To have a home Olympics in your sporting life is incredibly rare, so I’m incredibly lucky. Those 2 weeks are surreal, just little things. You go in a food hall and there is Usain Bolt walking through, and there are just famous people everywhere. You don’t really appreciate it as it’s happening, because you’re concentrating on your games, but it’s an incredible experience.

Q: What was your Ph.D. about?

A. S.: I was looking at different mathematical models for digital images. We’re looking to develop a technique to restore images, so if an image is degraded by noise or blur, you can remove the blur and the noise. These are called restoration algorithms.

Q: What motivated you to do a Ph.D.?

A. S.: I was studying my undergraduate degree in London, at Imperial College, and the Great Britain water polo team was just setting up a high-performance center in Manchester, where the team would train for about 5 hours a day. I got selected to join the team, but the money wasn’t that good, so I needed to find something else to do. A Ph.D. was a good thing to do during the day, so I applied to do a Ph.D. in Manchester, and I asked for a reference in London from my final-year project adviser. He said that instead of writing a reference, he wanted me to stay in London and work with him. He asked about the time commitments in Manchester and how much I was prepared to work, and he trusted me.

He managed to arrange a very flexible situation, which was very good for me. I moved to live in Manchester so that I could train, and I just went to London once a week and had Skype meetings, so I also got to stay at Imperial College. Basically, my lab is my laptop, so when I run an experiment, I write code and run it on the laptop. This has allowed me to live in different places and still do the work.

I stayed in Manchester for the first 3 years. Then I moved to Hungary to play professionally, so there I became full time and took an interruption of studies for 2 years. During that time, I only really did 2 to 3 hours a day on my Ph.D. After the Olympics, I did 12 months of almost full-time Ph.D. work to catch up.

Q: How did you juggle your sport and studies?

A. S.: I may work less than other people, but I’m quite good at concentrating and working well for a few hours. I’m quite honest with myself, and it helps to realize when I’m working and when I’m wasting time. I had a friend at university who was amazed that I was studying half the time he was, and we got the same exam results. He complained that he studied for 12 hours every day, but I remember telling him that he was in the library for 12 hours, but only really studied for about 7 hours. The rest of the time he was on the computer or chatting with people.

I know people who would sometimes miss training because they had an exam or something, but I’ve never done that. Not allowing myself to miss a session forced me to get the work done. I took responsibility for finding the time.

Q: Did it ever feel like it was too much?

A. S.: I don’t think it was ever too much. During my 2-year break, it became a little difficult with the Ph.D. because I was competing against people to get a paper out. I had results that were better than anybody else’s results under certain circumstances, so there was a danger that if I didn’t publish, somebody else would publish something better. And if everybody else is full time and I’m doing it a few hours a day, there is a danger of falling behind, but I got the paper out on time in the best journal for the area. I also got a few conference papers out of the Ph.D., which I think is what’s standard for the area, so I was happy.

Q: Were there any disadvantages to combining your Ph.D. with sport?

A. S.: One thing that I missed by doing the Ph.D. the way I did it is that I didn’t interact as much with my lab mates. It would have been better to collaborate more and discuss things more closely with the group than I did. I just did my work by myself, and my supervisor advised me on what was good to do, but I didn’t fully understand what other people were doing and what was good for a Ph.D. student, whether you should publish a hundred papers or a few papers.

Q: How do you think sport may have helped you in your science?

A. S.: In sport, you’re always thinking, ‘What could I have done better?’ Also, there’s quite a lot of pressure sometimes in sport, and before a big game is quite similar to before a big presentation, in some ways, so it’s about learning the skills to deal with pressure. I do not worry about things that I can’t control because it’s just drilled into you in sport. So if there’s a job interview or something, as long as I’ve planned what I’m going to prepare and I’ve prepared it, then I’m relaxed. I set myself goals to think about during the event that are within my power to reach, so then I have nothing beyond my control to worry about.” When I played sport, we’d play a game on a Saturday. If we lost, then the Sunday could be pretty depressing. But by Monday it’s a new week and you start analyzing the game. You start to replan things, and you have to learn to either forget things quickly or improve on them. You can’t just think about them forever.

All that sport psychology, I think it just helps you to understand how to improve yourself, and so those kinds of skills you get from sport are very good.

Q: What’s next?

A. S.: I want to concentrate on my research now. I’ve just signed a 1-year contract to do a postdoc on image localization—or working out where you are located in the world from a photo—at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. The project is funded partly by the Swiss government and partly by a start-up called Vidinoti, which develops tools to create augmented reality content. After that, I could look at moving to the start-up or maybe applying for another year of grant to do a similar kind of project.

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