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Meet Erik Campano who has backgrounds in multiple disciplines

What is your educational and professional background?
A lot of cognitive science students have backgrounds in multiple disciplines, and I’m no exception. The Umeå Cognitive Science Master’s programme gives you a chance to integrate the various fields you’ve studied, or in which you’ve worked, or both. So, in my case, my cognitive science Master’s thesis in Umeå brought together three different subjects: ethics, artificial intelligence, and emergency medicine. Ethics and artificial intelligence were areas I’d examined in-depth when I did my Bachelor’s of Science in Symbolic Systems at Stanford. Emergency medicine, meanwhile, was the topic of my reporting for a decade as a broadcast journalist. Later, I did direct research in the emergency department at Columbia University’s teaching hospital in New York City, while concurrently studying biomedical sciences. Umeå’s cognitive science community gave me the resources to unify these diverse experiences into a single unique academic project. So, thanks to Umeå, I was the first person ever (as far as I know) to publish on the ethics of artificial intelligence in emergency medicine.

Why did you choose to enrol in your degree programme at Umeå University?
Umeå University has a creative, enterprising, and fun spirit, and that’s what I was looking for. Many details of the university culture lend themselves to helping students to think outside-the-box and produce rigorous, original research and analysis. For example, professors are informal and helpful; they go by their first names and keep their doors open. Almost all university departments are situated together on a single, bucolic campus. The school encourages interdisciplinary contact and the migration of academic work into real-world entrepreneurship. Umeå University is well-organized; bureaucracy operates more efficiently here than many other big universities. Student well-being is made a high priority, with everything from extensive academic and personal support services, to cozy lounges and excellent cafeterias, to a genuinely good-quality integrated online learning platform. When it came time to decide where to do my Master’s degree, I knew I wanted to go someplace that students are generally happy, and where professors share a lively enthusiasm for cognitive science. And that’s exactly what I found… and so I’ve now stayed in Umeå, to do another Master’s, in the related field of Human-Computer Interaction and Social Media.

What do you like most about your programme?
The people. Professors, students, and researchers are all a friendly bunch, full of curiosity. They treat each other with kindness and intellectual generosity. This allows you to test out ideas freely and brainstorm spontaneously. If you feel like having a deep conversation about some arcane academic topic, you’ll find someone who will be excited to talk with you. Also, a lot of my classmates are real experts in one field or another; it’s inspiring to study with people who, for example, have a comprehensive knowledge of neuroanatomy or philosophical epistemology.

What is the most interesting thing you learned in your programme or courses so far?
Can I say two things?

  1. How the revolutionary genetic engineering tool CRISPR/Cas9 might someday be used to treat neurological diseases, and in particular, Huntington’s. This was the topic of one of the first papers I wrote in the programme. CRISPR was invented partially in Umeå, and so to write the paper, I was able to consult, in person, some of the world’s authorities on CRISPR’s design and implementation. It’s beautiful to see that such an ingenious technology may soon be applied to stop intense human suffering.

  2. How to analyse, philosophically, the question of how humans know whether some proposition is possible. This question lies within modal epistemology, and it was the subject of my classmate’s Master’s thesis, which I had the honor of officially opposing at the end of our time in the programme. His thesis was 35 pages of densely argued philosophy – a real tour de force – parsing out and comparing the writings of contemporary epistemologists. Coming first to understand, and then to oppose, this thesis required me to reflect upon how we know things, in ways I never have reflected before. His arguments – both in their intricacy and their grand sweep – were marvellous, and I kept on puzzling over them for months afterwards. In fact, I still do.

What do you do when you are not studying?
Wow, a lot of different things. I founded and then managed Umeå’s first English-language theatre group for a year-and-a-half. During that time, I directed two full-length comedy plays, one an adaptation of Shakespeare and the other of Oscar Wilde. We had fantastic audiences and were covered in local TV and radio. I am a pianist, and have been writing a cycle of popular songs about Umeå, such as “Nydala Nights” (Nydala is the name of a lake in the city), and “My Mother Was a Moose”. I’m hoping that someday soon the whole city will be singing them. Sports-wise, I played baseball – yes, there’s baseball here – for two summers, and in the winter I compete in the local squash league. I also love to host parties. This past Halloween I hosted a party themed “Artificial Intelligence Gone Wild”. People came dressed as robots, corrupt scientists, and social media CEOs.

What is your impression of Umeå and the surrounding areas?
Umeå is peaceful, gentle, tolerant, environmentally-friendly, and culturally rich. As far as I can tell, all these characteristics are interconnected. That’s because from the soft snowfalls, to the aurora borealis, to the midnight sun, Umeå’s natural magnificence never ceases to influence our daily life – even that of people who have lived here for decades. There’s a special kind of social ambience in Umeå, such that we are all very aware, all the time, of the natural elements and how they are a bigger force than anything we humans might say or do. Also, Sweden puts a high value on pacifism, and Umeå is full of international residents. All this leads to people’s behaviour defaulting to compassion and civic-mindedness, and to being good listeners and co-operators. This, in turn, encourages creativity and free expression, and so Umeå has a fantastic performing and visual arts scene, as well as great local literature, not to mention clever architecture and some very creative cuisine.

What do you find as the biggest cultural difference, both socially and educationally, from your country with Sweden?
I’ve lived in seven countries and have dual nationality – the US and Germany – so it would take a long time to compare each of them with Sweden. Nonetheless, what really stands out for me about Sweden is the sometimes seemingly preternatural ability Swedish culture instils in people for working constructively together. In the university, this plays itself out as colleagues rarely dismissing others’ ideas offhand, but rather adroitly suspending their own point of view to think calmly and objectively about what someone has said. Whether in classroom discussion, a meeting with your supervisor, or just hanging out in the library café chatting about cognitive science, if you contribute an idea, people will pause, think about it, and try to find the best in it. Sweden has a kind of optimism about idea-generation that allows people to be courageous in their pursuit of truth. Dag Hammarskjöld, Harald Edelstam, and Greta Thunberg are three examples of fearlessly idealistic products of the Swedish educational system. They’re the kind of people I’d like to be like.

What you would say or what advice would you give to another international student thinking of attending Umeå University?
Don’t be intimidated by the winters. Yes, they are cold and the sun is not up very much, but that doesn’t mean you will be cold or in the darkness.
As far as the cold is concerned: buildings are well-insulated, and connected by bridges and tunnels so you don’t have to go outside much in the winter. Also, the air is pretty dry and there’s not much wind, so it doesn’t bite at your face like it can in harsher climates. Umeå’s stores are full of great winter clothing that will keep you snug and looking fashionable, too. People here love to exercise, go to the sauna, and take baths, and they cozy up their houses with lots of blankets. So, everyone is very good at staying warm.

As for the light: between the snow on the ground and the aurora in the sky, there’s already a lot of natural light around in the winter. Furthermore, the city and its residents go kind of crazy lighting up everything for the holidays… decorations come out in early November and stay until March. There’s even a light therapy room at the university, if you’re missing the sun. Umeå is a much brighter place in the winter than my friends and family seem to imagine.
Different people have different levels of tolerance for cold and darkness. So, this is a very individual thing. But you might just find – as I have – that the winters in Umeå are delightful and festive. Walking home from class under serene snowfall among pine trees, and then looking up and seeing the Northern Lights, can be magical.

And the summers – with temperatures around 25 Celsius and sunlight all night long – are just wonderful. In summer, I sometimes jog along the Ume River at two in the morning, with red and gold sunshine reflecting off its waves.

What are your career aspirations?
I’d like to keep talking and writing about ethics, particularly of artificial intelligence, and more particularly in medicine and media. I also would like to keep doing journalism. And I want to stay in Umeå. So… maybe working here at the university in some way? Perhaps teaching and publishing concurrently.

Favourite thing about Umeå University
People here have fun with ideas. Hardly a day goes by when our class doesn’t break out into laughter about some clever insight into what we’re studying.
Also: the grand piano in a building called Ljusgården. It’s this very cool four-story open space surrounded by balconies and all different kinds of rooms and offices. I practice on that piano sometimes, and the sound flows into the entire complex. Inspiring.

Favourite Swedish word or custom
Jämställdhet. This is most often translated as “gender equality”, but this does not do the Swedish word justice. Jämställdhet is more than the idea of gender equality. It’s a living philosophy, deeply ingrained for a long time in Swedish society. Swedish children are taught from an early age that regardless of gender identity – woman, man, or other – they can do what they like. Feminism and gender rights are implemented with extraordinary care and conscientiousness in Swedish society, and this makes life better for everyone. Things, of course, aren’t perfect, but they are good and getting better. Jämställdhet is one of the main reasons I moved to Sweden.

Three words to summarise your time in Umeå
Freedom, cooperation, joy.

Erik Campano