The HAT & PhD Comics
When I found out that Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics (www.phdcomics.com) was visiting Warwick to give a lecture on ‘The Power of Procrastination’, I was incredibly excited. I first discovered PhD Comics in 2004 as an undergraduate Computer Science student, and have been a fan ever since. Since becoming a PhD candidate, his comics have proven to be even more relevant to my life. So the the opportunity to hear him speak (and possibly get my beloved copy of Piled Higher and Deeper: A graduate student comic strip collection signed) was one that I couldn’t pass.
My supervisor, Prof Irene Ng is also a fan and often sends ‘inspirational’ PhD Comics links to her students, so obviously I told her all about it. She immediately suggested a meeting with Jorge to discuss the possibility of commissioning a 5-6 minute animated video around the Hub-Of-All Things (HAT). Irene is lead investigator on the RCUK-funded HAT project, which is creating the first-ever personal data platform to trade and exchange individuals’ own data for services in a standardised and structured manner.
So arrangements were made to meet with Jorge before his lecture at Warwick, and on March 5, 2014, he arrived on campus. To say that I was nervous was an understatement. It isn’t often that you get to meet someone who you feel you know from following their work, and also has had genuine impact on your life. Luckily, Jorge is friendly and really easy to talk to, so my nerves quickly disappeared. It was clear from our conversation that Jorge enjoys learning about new things and also has a genuine interest in what makes PhD students — and academics in general — do what they do. He asked me questions about the university, WMG, the HAT Project, my research and my unique journey to starting my PhD.
We proceeded with the meeting on the proposed HAT video with Irene as well as Dr Roger Cliffe, then project manager for HAT. During the discussions, Jorge agreed to do the video and it was arranged that he would interview Irene the following day. I figured that was the end of the meeting, so imagine my surprise when it was suggested that Jorge should interview me as well!
I had never felt more ill-prepared for anything in my life. All I could think was; would my explanations do the project (and my research) justice? And what if something I said was completely contradicted by Irene the following day? It would be like something out of a PhD comic! Thankfully Jorge’s interview style was relaxed, and he allowed me to talk about my research and the project, only interjecting to clarify on certain terms or concepts. He seemed very pleased with how the interview went.
The time had flown by, so we rushed to the lecture theatre and arrived less than 10 minutes before Jorge was due to start speaking! Unphased, Jorge delivered a lecture that was informative and entertaining, with the slightly self-depreciating style of humour that PhD comic readers have come to expect. The audience of students, lecturers, professors and more seemed to enjoy it and laughed along throughout. Evidence that academia may be a solemn business, but we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously!
Afterwards I joined the long queue of attendees looking to buy books, t-shirts and copies of PhD the Movie or like me, simply seeking an autograph and/or photos with the man himself. My time in the queue gave me a chance to reflect on my experience. I was struck by the realisation that the PhD community doesn’t have much in the way of celebrities like the world of business, media, the arts and sports, and even those in academia are few and far between. Jorge Cham may well be the closest we have, and he is very much deserving of that title.
Now, just over a year later (as Jorge has been busy working on the 2nd PhD Movie), the HAT video has been completed and it’s been worth the wait. I’m really pleased with how it came together and proud to have been a part of it, even if it is a bit surreal to see myself as a cartoon character! The video has received incredible feedback, with the comments section on PhD Comics’ YouTube channel buzzing with discussion.
It is clear that the video highlights an issue that many people are interested in – the ownership of personal data – and it is hoped the HAT project will provide a solution in the near future. I’m incredibly thankful to have been involved with the making of the video, and hope it will inspire others to think about their digital footprints and the future of personal data; to get involved in the project and to sign up for their own HAT.