Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Tempest is a South African-born, London-based engineer and scientist with degrees in Information Engineering (a branch of Electrical Engineering) and Biomedical Engineering (engineering for health and medicine) from Wits University. Her PhD in Bioengineering at Imperial College London focused on medical sensor technology. She has experience in the end-to-end development of tech to improve health, from basic and applied scientific research at the lab bench, to product development and user-experience. Her research at Ctrl Group and Science Practice focuses on mobile diagnostic devices, from the low-tech (disposable tests) to the hi-tech (machine learning and wearables).
What projects are you working on at the moment?
As part of Cognition Kit, I’m currently working on a study with an Apple Watch app to monitor and assess cognitive function in patients with Major Depressive Disorder. Cognition Kit is a a set of capabilities that creates micro-cognitive testing suitable for high frequency testing in real world situations. Cognition Kit leverages existing wearable technologies to find the suitable technology, neuropsychological assessment and user interface that fits the context of use. The goal is to engage a patient to take control of their cognitive assessment in real time to capture fluctuations during the day. We are partnering with biopharma companies to support their mHealth strategies.
What does your current job role entail?
On Cognition Kit my job involves bringing science, engineering and user experience together to develop new ways of measuring cognitive health. When I’m prototyping a new cognitive test, I read the neuro-scientific literature to understand how testing has been done traditionally, consider what data I’d like to collect and how I’ll analyse that using tools like machine learning. I’ll consider how the tests can make the most out of being on wearable devices, and how they’ll be constrained by factors like a small screen. I then devise a way to turn the test into an experience for users, and incorporate user feedback as it comes in. My goal is to design tests that are enjoyable and convenient, so I consider how to finely tune the difficulty level, how to keep tests short and snappy, and how to present user’s data back to them in a way that’s insightful but digestible.
How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
My career path has been quite unusual in that I studied 3 engineering degrees. After my degree in Biomedical Engineering, which was the first in South Africa, I couldn’t see any interesting work opportunities as the field was so new. I then studied the more traditional Information Engineering degree. After my PhD in Bioengineering I joined a genomic data startup (repositive.io) in an accelerator, and then joined my current company. Because biomedical engineering and health tech is growing so fast, it’s becoming easier to get into as more opportunities open up. Nowadays people are much more aware of the role of engineering in health, partly due to the visibility of wearables, and also because AI has become such a high- profile branch of engineering research which is being applied to health.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
One major obstacle was figuring out how to reconcile my creative side with my love of science and engineering. During my 10 years at university, I had a side career as an artists and designer, producing sculptures, illustrations, installations, and participating in international exhibitions. After my PhD I was determined to bring that creativity into science and engineering and saw user-centred design as a bridge. I decided I wanted build my career in tech that interfaces directly with humans, as opposed to say, designing wind turbines or controllers for a power station.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
One of the most rewarding things about working outside of academia is the shorter research timelines, so it’s been great to see Cognition Kit in patient’s hands after only a year. Another project I’m proud of is called SoilCards which I’m working on at Science Practice. It started when I was researching a medical device, but I realised that the technology could have a lot of impact in agriculture instead. SoilCards make soil-nutrient analysis easy, quick, and affordable to smallholder farmers who don’t have access to soil-testing laboratories, and I’ll be going to Kenya in the next month to do some user research.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you?
To me, it’s important to encourage a diverse group of young people to pursue STEM degrees, but we must also retain them in the field after graduating, all the way into senior levels of academia and industry. 16% of engineering undergraduates in the UK are female but only 9% of the engineering and technology workforce is female (source www.wes.org.uk/statistics), which means women are actively leaving the tech workplace. I personally know woman engineers who have been pushed out of the profession by the working environment. To me the #WomenInTech means making a fair and supportive workplace for women and other under-represented groups.
What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech / STEM?
I think the start of my engineering career was particularly challenging because back then I wasn't aware of any discussion about the lack of diversity in engineering, which left me feeling alienated. I remember being the only woman in a class on telecoms engineering. We had to form groups of 3 for a project and I was the only one left without a group, so it was pretty embarrassing to have to ask the lecturer to assign me to a group. Recently someone said that “I don’t look like somebody who knows how to use Matlab” but those kinds comments bother me less now that I’m part of a supportive community and the discussion about diversity is more mainstream and widespread.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and digital health industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Traditionally, measurements of health were done in a lab or hospital by a professional on specialised equipment. I’m excited about all the health data that will be collected by mobile consumer devices like wearables in the coming years. I think we’ll learn so much from the new contextual data that’s collected on the same devices (like GPS which could show somebody’s activity routine), and the data from other sensors in homes and cities. I think this will be very valuable for patients and public health planners alike.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and digital health?
3 young women from the UK digital health community who have inspired me because of their vision, courage, and ability to make things happen are: Fiona Nielsen, CEO and founder of Repositive, Isabel Van Der Keere, CEO and Founder of Immersive Rehab and the late Jemma Redmond, CEO and founder of Ourobotics.
Website: Cognition Kit
Website: Ctrl Group
Website: Science Practice
Linkedin: Tempest van Schaik
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.