Olga Vovk is a Digital Health PhD student at TalTech. Along with the research in healthcare data anonymization she is also actively working on her startup CyberWise.Space and is taking part in other projects. Olga is keen on finding balance between different tasks and organizing her time wisely. Her story and a recipe of a fruitful and enjoyable PhD in the interview.
“It was time to grow and learn further”
My path to the field of digital health was quite long. Before I came to Estonia to study my Master’s I had an education background in law and work experience as a project manager in medical companies, mostly dealing with medical equipment but also medical software. At some point I realized it was time to grow and learn further. I knew I would like to proceed in the direction of digital health and as I couldn’t find anything suitable in Ukraine I started looking abroad. To my positive surprise the Digital Health MSc. programme at TalTech was the one that met my criteria in terms of topic and language of instruction being English.
Starting with a PhD
I would say nothing in my journey is straightforward. I had a 1-year gap between my Master’s and PhD. In this period, I started two digital health related startups. At present, one of them is pivoted but I am actively working on the other one concerning the topics of cybersecurity in healthcare.
I was already thinking about the PhD earlier but there were no open positions in the year I have graduated from my Master’s. Yet, I still had this idea on the back of my mind, so once the opportunity came by next year I immediately applied and started my PhD journey.
Healthcare Data Anonymization
The topic of my PhD is Healthcare Data Anonymization. At the hospitals and other medical institutions, there is a lot of very valuable data that on the one hand has to be shared, but on the other has to be protected for the sake of the person behind it. To be honest de-identifying personal information is a very complicated process, as some data is not structured and some is very valuable and sensitive. My task is to build a framework and to learn what would be the suitable tools for data anonymization in order to preserve privacy on the one hand, and to enable researchers, startups, and further entities use the information.
Pros and cons of PhD studies
I really like being a PhD student, I am a big fan of my topic and I have great supervisors. I really enjoy the flexibility in a sense that you can shape your own schedule. As long as you deliver certain results in your research you are flexible to do it in your own way. Another thing that makes me proud and gives me a feeling of accomplishment is having my articles published. During my first year as a PhD I had two and it was a great achievement for me and my research group. It is really amazing to get an idea, work on it and then see the result in a form of a publication.
As for negative sides, I would say that PhD is not for everyone. In my case, I managed to combine it with a practical experience, because I believe if you are only doing your PhD and only focusing on the research lacking the practical approach often times your research might not be applicable to the reality. I think it is a big challenge, as in the lab everything works perfectly fine but once you go to the real world it suddenly fails. I tried to overcome it specifically by combining my entrepreneurship and PhD.
Combining a PhD with entrepreneurship
I have my company that has actually started at the university when I met my future co-founder in the cybersecurity class and now together we have a startup CyberWise.Space focused on cybersecurity.
We are helping people with privacy and security issues. For instance, if they need to monitor their network or adhere to certain standards from the security point of view. We consult them and at the same time developing a software to automate this process in the future.
I am also a project manager in IT company, where I do more healthcare technology related work. In the project there are various stakeholders from development on one side and a client on another (a healthcare institution or another business), who want to develop some system and my task is to manage the communication between the two.
Combining different fields so they all work together
I make a schedule for myself and I believe it is very important to have time specifically dedicated to the research, to the company, and to the startup, that’s how it all works. And also by defining priorities of course, so if I need to publish an article I will focus on this. If some important deadline is coming for a startup I will of course do that first.
I would also say that in my work everything is related, it’s not like I’m working in completely different fields. When I came to Estonia with my background in law, I would sometimes think how it would fit to the Digital Health curriculum. But once I started working on my Master’s thesis in privacy and security in digital health applications it actually helped me in a combination with newly acquired technical knowledge. It is also basically what I continue doing in my PhD — combining different fields so they all work together. All in all, my fields of expertise are supporting each other and not contradicting.
Importance of support in your startup journey
I actually have quite many connections here and I think that to have this community is really helpful. I also really like TalTech’s approach towards startups. Currently in Digital Health programme we have a hackathon, where students are presenting their ideas in a form of a competition and in the following semester they continue developing their ideas. What I personally find very valuable is that during hackathons you can come up with amazing ideas but if you don’t continue it will most probably just stop there. But with the support of the university your idea can grow into a real business. Nowadays it is also a part of my PhD, as I am a mentor helping students to work on their business ideas.
I find teaching very exciting
I give a lecture in the Medical Law and Ethics course about privacy and security in healthcare, more specifically I am focusing on GDPR. So basically, I explain how to treat personal data and to make sure that everything works correctly from the perspective of a patient and in the relationship of healthcare institution and their employees. It is a very comprehensive topic.
Actually teaching is very valuable for me because it is an opportunity to not only teach but also learn from the students. In Digital Health programme they are coming from different backgrounds — medical, technical, legal and are sometimes asking questions I didn’t think about, and it helps me to think about the topic from a different perspective and it also motivates me to do more research and check other points of view, which is really enriching.
I am also planning to have my personal course on GDPR for companies with CyberWise.Space. It will be specially created for companies who want to know how to implement GDPR but have limited knowledge on the topic. In my experience of working with the companies I have noticed that I am essentially explaining the same thing to each of them so it is only logical to develop a single course. There will be more information about this in a few months.
I am doing quite usual things, like going to nature, spending time with my partner and maybe an unexpected one — I’m also playing World of Warcraft. Before pandemic I have been also travelling a lot. I really like to walk,
I live not far away from the university and I think the area around here is really green and amazing for long walks that I enjoy so much. My favourite place on the campus is the library. It brings me back to very pleasant memories, when I was writing my Master’s thesis there. It really has this nice studying energy. Outside campus my favourite places in Tallinn are pretty classic- Old Town, Telliskivi, Pirita promenade.
To whom would you recommend Estonia as a study destination?
I am originally from Ukraine, so I would say to Ukrainians and especially to technical people it is a really cool destination, as the university has a strong technical background. Another reason that if you are applying from Ukraine you won’t find an extremely different background in Estonia. So you won’t experience any sort of cultural shock, but will definitely expand your horizons.
And also Estonia works well for people who are pretty calm, and vice versa if you are into an active urban lifestyle it’s maybe not the best match. But if you are looking for green, calm, very safe environment come to Estonia.