CMU Portugal Inside Story: João Semedo

João Semedo is a Portuguese student who finished this year his CMU Portugal Program Dual Degree PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a focus on Computational Neurosciences. He started the Program in 2012, and in 2016 he moved to CMU to join Professor Byron Yu’s laboratory, one of his PhD supervisors along with Professor Christian Machens (Champalimaud Research) and Doctor Adam Kohn (Einstein College of Medicine).

Also in 2016, he was selected to receive a Bertucci Graduate Fellowship, a grant of US $ 20,000, to provide merit fellowships to graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees in Engineering in CIT. His research focuses on the analysis of neuronal signals, in order to study the principles and mechanisms that control the propagation of information between the various areas of the brain. After the conclusion of his PhD in the beginning of 2018, he was asked to extend his stay at Professor Yu’s Laboratory for one more year.

Profile Interview


1. Could you please briefly sum up your academic background before starting the CMU Portugal Program?

Before starting the CMU Portugal Program I completed my M.S. and B.S. in Biomedical Engineering at Instituto Superior Técnico.

2. When you decided to pursue the PhD, why did you end up choosing the CMU Portugal Program ECE Doctoral program?

The rare and invaluable opportunity to work at a top US university!

3. You stayed for one year in Portugal, and then spent another year at CMU, to finally coming back to Portugal for 2 more years. How would you describe this experience?

While moving back of forth between Portugal and the US so many times was certainly challenging at times, it allowed me to experience life and research at two new (for me) and very different institutions, CMU and the Champalimaud Research Centre (almost simultaneously!). This combination was crucial to the work I developed throughout my PhD. The decision to move back and forth, instead of simply spending time at one institution and then moving and finishing at another, came because it was very important to keep our collaboration going between the two institutions, as opposed to something more akin to two different, consecutive, projects.

4. In 2016, you returned to Professor Byron Yu’s laboratory to finish your PhD. You ended up spending  two extra semesters there. Why was that?

I was given the chance to extend my stay in the US for one more year. Given that I had a few collaborations with people in Pittsburgh, we felt it made sense to stay while applying the finishing touches on my PhD work.

5. How would you describe this experience at Professor Yu’s Laboratory?

Absolutely fantastic! Professor Yu is inspiring, both professionally and personally. The lab does leading work in systems neuroscience and is composed of very talented people, who are great to work with every day.

6. Could you please explain us what is the core of your research?

The primary goals of my research are to use neuroscience “big data” to understand how brain areas communicate and to develop new statistical tools specifically tailored to this problem.

7. Which moment would you consider the highlight of your PhD?

That’s a great question… I suppose the thesis defense must rank pretty high. Not only was it a momentous occasion, it provided an incredible perspective over what was a very significant part of my life so far.

8. In what ways was the CMU Portugal program important for your work and your future as a researcher?

It was through the CMU Portugal program that I got to engage and collaborate with top researchers not only in Pittsburgh, but also in New York and in Lisbon. Without this opportunity, my work would simply have been impossible!

9. In addition to your professional experience, how did you adapt to life in Pittsburgh and in the United States?

Pretty well I think. Pittsburgh is a fairly calm city and the truth is that my day-to-day life is very similar living in Portugal or the United States.

10. For other students that are thinking about doing a CMU Portugal PhD, what would your message be?

Go for it! I’m immensely grateful for this opportunity, and I cannot recommend this program enough.

11. What are your plans? What comes next?

For the moment I will continue to work on Professor’s Yu lab as a Postdoctoral Research Associate, continuing the project I’m currently a part of. After that… Who knows!