CMU Portugal Inside Story: Alex Gaudio

Alex Gaudio is a 5th-year CMU Portugal Ph.D. student in Electrical and Computer Engineering at FEUP and CMU. Before starting his Ph.D., Alex was a Data Scientist and an Engineer in New York City for 7 years, where he co-founded the non-profit NYC Makerspace and also worked with various startups. Alex completed his Bachelor’s degree in Music at Bard College.

While in the CMU Portugal Program, he has contributed to two different projects. During his first Ph.D. years, he was involved at SCREEN DR focused on Machine Learning applied to Diabetic Retinopathy Detection. He is now engaged in CMU Portugal’s TAMI project to develop the next-generation of explainable machine intelligence in medical image analysis.

“I always wonder about the future and do things to explore the possibilities. Make some space to be reasonably safe and healthy. Challenge yourself to think bigger. A lot bigger. Consider that the pathways everyone shies away from hide opportunities you are overlooking.”

You have a curious background, you started with a Bachelor’s in music…can you share more about this part of your education?

Learning how to learn faster:  Bard College is truly an excellent liberal arts school.  I came to the school feeling intellectually much less developed than my peers.  Everyone seemed so smart.  Everyone had something to say.  People were well-spoken.  It was intimidating. Yet, when everyone is smarter and more knowledgeable than you, the world is absolutely, undeniably amazing!  The safe, supportive and stimulating atmosphere helped me learn how to thrive in life. As I grew at Bard, my underlying passion to “learn how to learn” morphed into a mantra to “learn how to learn faster.” This mantra I had, it turned out, is not just an intellectual endeavor but a physical one too. For instance, I would frequently practice my saxophone for six hours straight, skipping lunch or dinner and ignoring all bodily needs. At one point, I had such bad tendonitis in both arms that I couldn’t use a toothbrush. In my senior year concert, I almost passed out after playing a last triumphant note to a cheering crowd. Working hard demands careful attention to the needs of the body and mind. How could I align my body and mind with the will and discipline necessary to seriously pursue jazz music. That question dominated the next several years of my life as I transitioned beyond the pursuit of music into the pursuit of my career.

What took you to make such a significant change to Software Engineering?

The start of my career:  In my Junior year at Bard, I started thinking about life after college.  Professional musicians I admire often spend their first ten years working wedding gigs, in bar scenes and taking a side job to pay bills.  I didn’t aspire to any of those.  I also decided that the practical realities of the jazz musician world would limit my options and hinder my ability to grow in the ways I want to.  My “backup” plan was to become a doctor like my dad, uncle, and grandfather.  I had taken pre-med classes.  I greatly enjoyed working and volunteering as an Emergency Medical Technician on ambulances and in a hospital.  The hospital experiences were truly incredible, and multiple physicians asked if they could write a recommendation letter for my medical school application.  But I never applied to medical school.  At the time, I felt that a physician’s pathway would be restricting myself to operating inside of a large and predefined tree, with limited ability to deviate outside it.  After conversations with multiple clinicians and my family, I found myself with a backup plan I didn’t want to pursue.

My dad’s advice tends to come sparingly and in moments of need.  “I think you don’t really want to be a doctor.  Explore the world!”  he said.  I did next what anyone might do.  I google searched the industry that was most in demand.  Software engineering appeared at the top of the list, and I figured it was a good fit.  After all, I had used a Linux computer since Freshman year.

At that time, it was summer between Junior and Senior years.  I gathered the courage to ask the CTO of Bard College, Bill Terry, to hire me to work for the school and also to teach me for credit.  I greatly benefitted from this opportunity and used it to learn to hack the school’s internet, among other things.  At the same time, I also took an intro to programming class and discovered a wonderful book by Marvin Minsky called Society of Mind.   I was hooked.

From the perspective of a liberal arts college student, the change from music to software engineering was not a big change.  If history was at the top of the list in my google search, I would have taken to that pursuit in a heartbeat.

“Some people focus on skills and knowledge as an end goal.  I don’t. I point my finger in a direction and then acquire the skills I need as a consequence of choosing to go in that direction. Sometimes I go backwards, and sometimes the chosen direction is completely arbitrary and uninformed.  I point and go at it with all my will. “

Complex concepts like vision and passion come later as a result of just doing things, and skills are more like pleasant side-effects of problem-solving in some chosen direction.  Among the most valuable skills is your finger-pointing radar; try to figure out how to structure the perceived world into problems and goals that can be approached. Then, point the finger and go!  Of course, one important prerequisite is safety.

You worked in a set of NYC startups and even co-founded a nonprofit organization. Can you share more about this period?

Alex Gaudio in NYC

“Comfortably uncomfortable” is a mantra I adopted from colleagues and professional mentors in the seven years between undergrad and grad school.  The phrase defines this anxious sensation that one must  always be pushing at a reasonable rate.  If you are too comfortable, the competition will swallow you.   If you are too uncomfortable, then you burn out or get injured.  I happen to be addicted to “comfortably uncomfortable.”  Startups are a thrilling pathway.  “No’s” and fighting like hell for beliefs are the lingua franca.   One day you are taking over the world, the next everything is burning and you’re crying in a hole, the third, you feel trapped and bored out of your mind.  Startups are all about a promise of success that is beautifully hard to secure and hard to define.

Ride the wave:  I want to “make the world a better place,” right? I also want to “learn how to learn faster.”  These guiding principles involve strategic decisions one has to make.  My first job after college was a software engineer for a textbook publishing company.  “Wow!” was my favorite word, and I meant it. I became friends with an intern who was at the time also a PhD student in computer science and mathematics, Professor Neil Lutz. Thanks to his inspiration, I discovered that I wanted to pursue the mathematical and scientific side of engineering.  Around 2012, data science was a brand new term. I therefore aligned myself with a goal to become a data scientist. My second and third jobs were in advertising (a brief moment of hell I am not proud of) and marketing. It’s hard to convince people that a music major with no formal training could do something a PhD might be better suited to do. By skin and teeth, it worked.  I became a data scientist and enjoyed many successes. Perhaps I sold my soul a little to ride a mainstream wave. Within a few years, I reached a local “top” of the wave, and was starting to realize my direction was off. But then what?

Ride the wave, really?  People, especially young people, tend to push for the same idea of “best.” The “wave” is a collective movement towards this elusive “top” of the world.  At some point we all ride that wave because it’s popular, straightforward and offers an easy objective.   Indeed, if you don’t know where to point your finger, then the direction of the closest “best” thing seems like a pretty good one.  Yet, pursuit of the “best” is unhealthy; it implicitly restricts our open mindedness and ability to grow.   When everyone seeks out the same “best,” we typically end up hitting average or we get better than average by working harder than everyone else and killing ourselves and our families in the process.   The wave is a useful and problematic tool.  Perhaps we sometimes need to ride the wave to learn how the world works and where we come from.  But perhaps the tool isn’t necessary.  Perhaps I over-used it.  In retrospect, riding the wave was a hard way to go, but I did rely on it when I couldn’t figure out how to get people to believe in me.

Getting people to believe in me:  Success is made by connecting with people and pointing your finger in a way that others can understand and appreciate.  When the messaging is right, people appreciate what you want and where you’re going.  When they get it, they want to help you get there, and often, they want to join you!   When the wave you ride is lacking, stop and take a look around.  The view is quite spectacular if you take a moment to appreciate it.  When you can take a moment to look around with an open and exploratory mindset, a curiously dark and scary valley invariably shows up.   That’s when you know it’s time to get off the wave and light up the valley.  The most amazing and terrifying experiences in my life were the direct result of acting on my courage to deviate from the mainstream.

At one point you decided to take a break and rethink your next steps. Why and how did this end with a CMU Portugal Dual Degree Ph.D.?

“The world is your oyster, now play!”: About 2-3 years after undergraduate school, I had a well developed walk-in closet and living room. The closet sported two and a half homemade 3D printers, a wall of electronics, and a project graveyard of sorts. The living room table was dedicated to my heavily used drill press, oscilloscope and soldering station. My computer screen mixed between papers about embedding spaces, hardware component data sheets, and random plots. At that time, I was starting to realize and accept that, in my day job, I didn’t actually believe in making prediction tools enabling marketing companies to sell fancy shoes and bags. I was especially disconcerted when a two month deployment of our latest tools coincided precisely with my sister’s sudden obsession with $2,000 hand bags and $300 shoes on a 20k a year salary. She had been targeted by our technology.

 “I didn’t know what to do next, but I knew what I didn’t want to do. I saw no curiously dark valleys in sight at the top of this wave, but it was time to hop off anyways. When I told the CEO of our company that I was going to quit, he told me it was professional suicide. Indeed, it was, and, despite the pain it caused me, it was the best thing I ever did! “

My next job was a complete failure. I burned a connection that my boss and “professional dad” had so kindly given me, and I simultaneously experienced a head injury that, thankfully, helped me lose that job faster. The next period of my life, willed unemployment for exactly six months, was the most transformative period of my life. I had built up enough income to do it.  Where would I point next? I interviewed at Google; on my way to the interview, I told my dad I didn’t want the job. Naturally, I was rejected. I played in my 3-d printer closet, and I read about ideas like Word2Vec. My wife and I decided to have a child, and the physician was like, “Dude, get a job!”

Alex Gaudio and his wife in Portugal

Eventually, I convinced Uber to fly me to SF, under the premise of an interview so I could talk with my “professional dad” and former boss. I didn’t tell him exactly why I was there, but he knew.

The doors of the elevator were closing as we said goodbye. Just then, a head poked between the doors just in time to say, “Alex, go get a PhD!” I fell back into the elevator and my whole body knew he was right. Thank you again, Jeremy Stanley.  I had spent much of my career until this moment carefully finding good reasons not to do a Ph.D.

In fact, around the time I discovered an interest in data science, I also developed a strong desire to pursue a Ph.D. with Tod Machover at MIT to mix music and math.  But I lost interest when a Bard professor I had worked with discouraged me from applying.  Now, I suddenly found myself pointing a finger at Ph.D.  On the turn of a time, I secured a great part-time job through a friend and mentor, I began research at Columbia with the coolest professor in 3-d printing on the planet, Professor Hod Lipson, and thanks to Hod’s initial help, I successfully co-founded a non-profit with a friend, Mohamed Haroun. The next year, I decided I would indeed apply for Ph.D. programs. That six month period of willed unemployment was completely transformative, and it set me on the most rewarding trajectory of my career. The non-profit gave me a beautiful space to build community.  We gave tools of advanced technology and education to people for free, and then showed them how to play with ideas. There is perhaps nothing more invigorating than to see people who don’t believe in themselves or their abilities suddenly reach their hand into the bag and pull something out of it.  I am very proud of this period of my life. During this time, I revised my personal mantras: “Help others learn how to learn faster.” “Stop riding the wave.” I finally figured out how to play in the world.  And play I did.

When I received an acceptance letter from CMU, I was pleasantly uncomfortable.  “Oh no!  Now what am I going to do now?” CMU presented an amazing one-time opportunity that I had taken time to consider and pursue, but the non-profit was taking off spectacularly. I did not see space for data science research in the non-profit, and my dream to create a research lab remained unfulfilled.

After soul searching, I decided to stick with my original plan and pursue the Ph.D. at CMU. It helped when my CMU advisor, Professor Asim Smailagic, introduced me to the CMU Portugal Program.  It seemed like a great way to give my family the experience of living in Portugal. I also discovered that one of my recommendation letter writers, Divyanshu Vats, was a CMU student, and his advisor, Professor José M.F. Moura, founded the CMU Portugal Program. Things therefore seemed in alignment.  The non-profit survived without me. I became excited to explore medical image analysis with Professor Asim Smailagic.

Alex Gaudio at CMU Portugal Orientation day 2020

You participated in two big CMU Portugal Projects, SCREEN DR and now TAMI , can you share more about these experiences?

SCREEN-DR studied diabetic retinopathy from the perspective of automated image analysis and machine learning.  The retina is, in my opinion, the most beautiful organ of the body.  Photographs of it hide so much detail, and are telling of our health.  My uncle and grandfather are ophthalmologists, and the project therefore aligned very nicely with me.  I was ready to pursue a Ph.D. thesis to analyze fundus images, but I paused that direction when my advisors’ funding switched from SCREEN-DR to TAMI.

TAMI is a project focused on developing the next generation of explainable artificial intelligence for chest x-ray analysis, glaucoma detection, and cervical cancer.   Within the scope of TAMI, my Ph.D. thesis pursues explainable machine learning for deep learning in medical image analysis.  I focus on developing tools of compression and fixed, non-adaptive methods to expose and address bias that arises in the analysis of medical images.

“The research experience is fantastic.  I love it. My advisors are wonderful and always there for me.  My CMU advisor Professor Asim Smailagic has shaped me in such wonderful ways.  I am forever deeply indebted to him.  My Portuguese advisor, Professor Aurélio Campilho, is also very inspiring and supportive.”

The Ph.D. experience is not without its challenges, and I have sure experienced mine.  My difficulties have to do with the practical challenges of moving my family to Portugal at the height of COVID, and with the realization that the grad school system is not designed to support families.

In your opinion what are the main advantages of pursuing a dual degree Ph.D. program such as yours?

Should I try to convince you to apply to a dual degree Ph.D. program?  Yes, apply!  Should I convince you to join?  Maybe.

These are my own personal opinions at the current moment in time.

Pro:  If you’re wondering about the CMU Portugal Program, it can be a fantastic opportunity.  The dual affiliation doubles your network and number of people you can work with, it gives you more opportunities to meet people, and offers a cultural immersion experience you may never have otherwise.  My experience verifies how cool the opportunity is.

Con:  The dual degree program is not designed for families.  If you have or want to have a family during your Ph.D., consider that the dual degree program accentuates the financial burden of the Ph.D.  The Portuguese stipend is by far too small to realistically support children.  Cost of school for my two children this year, alone, will almost use up my FCT stipend.  CMU’s stipend is better than the Portuguese FCT stipend, but also too low.  Another aspect to consider is that older children may have trouble adjusting to the foreign lifestyle, and I wish in our first year we had found for our oldest son a school teacher who speaks English.  Your whole family has to be aligned with the plan to move to a foreign country and everyone needs to work consistently towards assimilating.  I don’t know others who started the program with children, and very few people start at CMU and go to Portugal.  It is not an easy or simple undertaking.

Alex Gaudio at CMU Portugal Doctoral Symposium 2021

After graduation what are your plans?

I recently started developing large life-long ideas and plans.  I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am about them.  I am forming a life-long (or 20 year) plan with three broad goals.

First goal:  Research Lab.  I have dreamed to set up a research and teaching lab ever since I learned about data science.  The lab will build on my Ph.D. work to focus on machine learning for the stethoscope and non-invasive medical devices, with emphasis on the heart, lung and the vascular system.  I want to establish simultaneous affiliation with a university, a medical school, and with industry partners.  Perhaps a dual-appointment professorship in the university and medical school is the best route towards this goal.

Second goal:  Real-world application.   I want to see my research used in the real world.   I intend to take promising research ideas from my lab, support them with investments and IP, and give diverse teams of people the power, control, support and network they need to run with it.  I would like to contribute to or create a research accelerator or incubator program that spins off startup companies and non-profits focused on machine learning, digital stethoscopes and non-invasive devices.  I also want to advise and consult for advise industry partners, implement research projects in hospitals and clinics around the world, and set up challenges for the medical machine learning community to accelerate and apply research.

Third goal:  Address the inequality gap.  I intend to build partnerships with nonprofits and investors to source, train and support disadvantaged people to work in and lead the organizations that I help spin out.  I would like to develop a sustainable way to source or train women leaders, immigrants, black people, military veterans, prisoners (e.g. from the Bard Prison Initiative), and people from my local community.   I believe a lot in diversity and am especially passionate about shattering some (but not all) glass ceilings.  I seek people who believe in individuals, not ideas.   Give individuals power and security, allow them to fail, and establish the framework to empower and fuel them when they come back for more.   I would like to spin off many companies, create many jobs, and improve the quality of health care around the world.

I am eagerly looking for the opinions of others on how to pursue any part of these three goals.  Please email me with advice or to seek collaboration!

Towards the first of these goals, I am planning to pursue a postdoc at Johns Hopkins University with Professor Mounya Elhilali.  Professor Elhilali is a world leader in the analysis of sound, she focuses on stethoscopes, and she is already very supportive.  Johns Hopkins is a leading medical institution in the USA.  There is quite a lot more I could share, but perhaps it’s better to leave it as is.  I recently started overwhelming my wife with plans upon plans.  I am very excited.

Apart from work, what are your main hobbies and is music/jazz still part of it?

It’s kind of funny to ask a Ph.D. student with kids if they have hobbies.  There’s basically no time for picking your nose.  But yes, I do have a hobby outside of kids and academic research.

There is a Spanish composer named Francisco Tarrega.  Rumor goes that, once upon a time when he was traveling outside of his homeland, and someone asked him after a concert if he missed his home and family.  His response was to compose Lágrima, which means “teardrop.”  That song is absolutely beautiful.  It was the first song I learned on the guitar.

I picked up classical guitar as a hobby after trying to convince my wife, a semi-professional singer, to play guitar.  I happen to love the instrument.  I also tinker on the piano.  I find peace and harmony in music.  It will never leave me, and I would be so fortunate if my children discover its depth.

Alex Gaudio at CMU Portugal Orientation Day 2020