Interview: Rocco Gasteiger

In this new and exciting series at we interview fascinating people working in the medical visualization field. First up, we had the pleasure of interviewing Rocco Gasteiger, a successful example of someone making the switch from an academic to an industry-oriented career. 

Rocco Gasteiger Rocco was born on October the 7th 1978 and grew up in Grimma in Saxony – Germany. Having finished school in 1997, he began as a trainee and became a  qualified roofer in 2000. Afterwards, he went on to study Computational Visualistics at the Otto-von-Guericke-University Magdeburg in Saxony-Anhalt. Following his graduation, Rocco joined the visualization group headed by Prof. Bernhard Preim as a PhD student. His thesis was on the visual exploration of cardiovascular hemodynamics. For his work he received the highest possible grade “Summa Cum Laude”. Furthermore, he was awarded first prize of the Karl-Heinz Höhne Award in 2012 and for his contribution he received the Dirk Bartz Medical Prize in collaboration with Mathias Neugebauer, Gabor Janiga, Oliver Beuing, and Bernhard Preim in 2013.

Hi Rocco, it is a pleasure to have you here. How are you?

Well, I’m a bit nervous but fine…thank you!

Don’t worry this interview will be read only by the medical visualization community.

Phew, great! However, if the whole world can read this or other interviews with colleagues, the world will know what great and important things are associated with medical visualization. So let the world be part of this community 😉

During your research days at the university, what else did you do at the Visualization group?

Chased my colleagues with Nerf  guns 😉 Ok, seriously, I was indeed involved in some other things besides my research work. One big part was teaching as a tutor: I regularly gave lessons in a practical course about visualization techniques in general as well a seminar that focused more on illustrative visualization techniques. Sometimes I gave lectures in these topics if one of the professors (in my case Bernhard Preim) was unavailable. My teaching job also involved the supervision of students in their Bachelor or Master thesis. Another big part was doing administrative tasks, e.g., maintaining the Visual Computing in Biology and Medicine working group website, supporting my Professor in writing proposals for funding or organizing conferences in which he was involved.

I imagine you can tell us funny stories about your experiences as a tutor. Could you share one?

Oh yes, a lot. One story relates to my great “talent” for mixing up names. I did this with a student in one of my courses. All the time I kept calling her the wrong name, “Nikita” (which was actually a male name). I was pretty sure that I knew her name correctly and since she always responded to that name and I didn’t think there was a problem. However, afterwards another tutor explained  my mistake to me and told me that he could barely contain his laughter during the course.

Your research was mainly focused on the exploration of cerebral aneurysms. How did you choose such a topic?

Oh well, I think the topic chose me 😉 One day Bernhard came to me and asked me to support my colleague Mathias Neugebauer in his topic of interactive visualization and exploration of blood flow in cerebral aneurysms. There was a lot of work to do and Mathias would be very happy if someone could join him. After Mathias gave me a brief introduction to the topic I was convinced that this could be interesting research and I joined in. I also have to say that Mathias and I made a great team. We would share and discuss our ideas and solutions about specific problems and we would motivate each other in times when progress was frustratingly slow.

My sources told me of a nice story as you were going to your first VIS conference in the US. Can you tell us what happened at the airport?

Ah yes…you are well informed. One of the officials at the airport asked me about the reasons for my stay in the USA. After I told him about my participation on a scientific conference he asked me about my research topic and I had to give an abridged version of my paper presentation. This was funny and I was not expecting this at the airport to an official.

If you had to summarize your thesis in a few words what would you say?

In my thesis I have developed and described novel qualitative visualization techniques that support domain experts (e.g., neuroradiologists or CFD engineers) in analyzing hemodynamic information in terms of developing cerebral aneurysms. This comprises adaptive surface visualization for embedded structures, detection and extraction of important hemodynamic characteristics as well as a focus-and-context visualization approach for a flexible visual filtering of hemodynamic information.

Did it ever happen that you had to do things you did not like to do?

Not many…but one thing I always found hard was writing funding proposals. You have to write about things you want to research but you have no idea what the actual work will look like. Sometimes it appears to me like fudging a story and I realized that I’m not a visionary.

Has it you ever occurred to you to be selfish during your research?

Selfish? Not really. Sometimes I had to postpone some work for other colleagues because a paper deadline was very close and I wanted to focus on finishing it first. However, I informed the colleague and got the work done after the deadline. In most cases, however, it was a give-and-take.

After finishing your PhD, did your work at the university change?

Yes, in certain aspects. I went to the digital dentistry industry and I’m not involved in academic research anymore, i.e., no paper writing, no conference participation and no lectures. However, I’m still involved in medical software development but in a more practical and direct application of it. I also can use a lot of my experience acquired from the university and am able to incorporate it in the development process and product.

What advice would you give your younger self as you started to do your PhD and what advice would you give other PhD students?

This advice consists of three practical things: 1. Choose a topic that you are really interested in, that is exciting (and also novel) enough to overcome hard and frustrating times during the preparation. 2. Be sure that you have a supervisor with a strong background in the general topic and who can motivate you (Bernhard was a perfect supervisor in this sense) 3. Find people who are also involved in this topic to discuss problems and solutions with them, e.g., cooporate with them, read a lot of their work, visit topic-related conferences and meet them there.

What would you say was the most important reason to do your PhD?

This answer will surprise and might sound strange to you but it’s the truth. It has its beginning with my Christian faith. Shortly before I finished my study Bernhard ask me to be a PhD student in his research group. I never thought about that and I actually was planning to start a job in the industry. Now, I saw an opportunity that Jesus gave me and after a period of contemplation and prayer I felt free about it and agreed. After the years spent on my PhD I’m very thankful for this opportunity and the decision to take it. I learned a lot of great things, met interesting people, travelled around the world and was part of a medical development that hopefully helps physicians and patients in a clinical routine one day.

Now you have left the academic world behind and you started to work as a programmer at Exocad, how did things change from being a scientist?

Indeed there are some changes. I think one important difference is that I’m developing a product that will be used by dentists and implantologists in their daily routine. This is what I really like because the product is applied to the patients by supporting domain experts in the planning of a safer operation. During my PhD I also developed software solutions with the focus on supporting domain experts in their diagnosis and treatment planning. However, because of the novelty of hemodynamic information and the approaches we developed our software solutions were not yet applicable in a clinical setting. Another difference is the kind of software development for the industry. I think as an academic visualization researcher you develop a prototype of your approach and you do not focus so much on robustness and usability (e.g., UI-design). A medical software product in the industry, however, is bought by a user who expects an efficient, robust, safe and user-friendly solution which supports him in his daily work. This means you have to be very careful during your code writing, use established algorithms and perform a lot of testing. You always have to keep the user with his tasks and capabilities (e.g., time frame, experiences, risk management) in mind as well as the safety of the patient when you develop the software.

Can you tell us what you do at Exocad?

In general, this is top secret but in this case I can make an exception I think 😉 Exocad is a dental software company that focuses on software solutions for the digital dentistry.  I’m in a team that develops implant software that will be used by dentists and implantologists to plan the implant treatment procedure. Among others it supports the analysis of bone density, risk structures and selection as well as placement of an appropriate implant. In addition to the implementation, I’m also involved in the certification process (e.g., writing the technical documentation) because our software is a medical product that requires an ISO certification before it can be delivered.

Do you think that your PhD was necessary to do your new job?

No, it is not necessary. Most of my colleagues have no PhD and started to work directly after their study. They gathered the necessary knowledge in their daily work, in the participation in dental conventions or by means of interviews with domain experts. However, I think the benefit of my PhD is having broader knowledge about medical visualization and its application that can be incorporated into those research related tasks during the development process.

What can we expect from you in the future?

If you were to get an implant procedure which was planned with our software it may well be that my signature is on your implant together with “Good luck, dude!” 🙂

Do you think you will contribute to research in the future?

Interesting question. Definitely not to such an extent as I was while working at the university. It might be that I will contribute some approaches, e.g., for digital dentistry. In the future, however, I see myself more in industrial, medical research than in an academic research position.

Thank you for you time and we hope to hear more from you in the future!

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