Google Ph.D. Fellowship - Gizem Özdil

© 2023 EPFL

© 2023 EPFL

EPFL Ph.D. student Gizem Özdil from Biorobotics (STI) and Neuroengineering (SV) Laboratories, co-supervised by Prof. Auke Ijspeert and Prof. Pavan Ramdya, was recently awarded a prestigiousGoogle Ph.D. Fellowship (North America/Europe) in ‘Computational Neural and Cognitive Sciences’. The award covers full tuition, fees, and a bursary for up to 3 years.

These awards have been presented to exemplary PhD students in computer science and related fields. We have given these students unique fellowships to acknowledge their contributions to their areas of specialty and provide funding for their education and research. We look forward to working closely with them as they continue to become leaders in their respective fields”, said Google in a press release.

We recently caught up with Gizem to learn more about her past endeavors and research interests.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your background and what led you to study at the interface between robotics and neuroscience?

Prior to starting my PhD, I completed my undergraduate studies in Electrical & Electronics Engineering and Mathematics at Boğaziçi University, Turkey. I spent several summer breaks working in labs as a research intern in different fields, ranging from Experimental Physics to Computer Science. My interest in robotics was sparked during a 2018 internship, where I delved into improving the emotion recognition capabilities of a social robot. The idea of enabling robots to understand human emotions fascinated me. After that, I became deeply interested in robotics and artificial intelligence, and chose the specialization track in Control Systems and Robotics within my department. My undergraduate thesis focused on robot localization using a human-inspired visual place recognition algorithm. These varied experiences showed me the potential of employing bio-inspired approaches in artificial agents, steering me towards a Ph.D. in this exciting intersection of robotics and neuroscience.

2. What brought you to EPFL?

I was attracted to EPFL for its distinctive interdisciplinary ethos. During my interviews with my current advisors, Professors Pavan Ramdya and Auke Ijspeert, the opportunity to serve as a conduit between two labs, merging neuroscience and robotics, was very exciting. Moreover, the strong recommendations from various people about EPFL’s high-quality research and supportive work environment played a significant role in my decision. Reflecting on my decision, joining EPFL has been rewarding for my career. For instance, I was fortunate to receive a Swiss Excellence Government Scholarship for my Ph.D. in my first year, which massively helped me get accustomed to this beautiful country and expand my professional network.

3. Could you summarize your PhD research in a single sentence?

My Ph.D. research primarily focuses on deciphering the mechanisms underlying multi-body part motor coordination in fruit flies, utilizing behavioral studies and computational models of the brain.

4. What impact do you hope your research will have on society or the field?

Despite the advances in tools for measuring behavior and neural activity in animals, we are still far from a holistic understanding of how little insect brains are capable of such diverse, agile motor behaviors. I hope that my research will broaden our knowledge of motor coordination in biological systems, possibly extending beyond the fruit fly. By deciphering how such small networks efficiently generate activity patterns orchestrating muti-body part coordination, I hope to contribute to the design of more sophisticated robotic controllers as well.

5. Why is your research a good match with Google?

Google recognizes the synergy between computer science and natural science and is committed to developing technologies that accelerate discoveries in various scientific domains. A testament to this is their collaboration with Janelia Research Campus in 2020, which yielded the publication of a hemibrain connectome, providing a static wiring diagram of neurons in the fruit fly brain.

Additionally, Google has also been actively building tools to study large connectomics datasets, aiming to understand the relationship between the brain structure and its function. My research aligns with these endeavors, as it seeks to disclose the neural mechanisms underlying motor coordination using the brain networks derived from the connectome.

6. As a successful female scientist in a field that has been mostly pursued by men, would you have any tips to increase inclusion and diversity?

Thank you for asking this question!

This is a multi-faceted topic, and there are many strategies to foster the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in STEM. Personally, I benefited enormously from having strong female role models and supportive mentors. Therefore, outreach activities at early educational stages are fundamental. I encourage STEM students to engage with organizations like “Girls Can Code” or other mentorship programs to inspire younger generations. Additionally, actively seeking mentorship and participating in research communities such as Women in STEM is important for personal and professional growth. On a systemic level, creating inclusive work environments and establishing support channels for underrepresented groups to share experiences and find assistance are essential. EPFL is making strides in this regard with the projects like Respect @EPFL, although there's much more ground to cover.

Interested to know more about Google PhD fellowships? Contact us at the Research Office.