It is difficult for researchers -often locked for many hours inside offices or laboratories- to be aware of the social impact of their work, which usually takes time to permeate as social progress. This was, however, one of the two necessary requirements to be awarded the Young Investigator Award granted by the Euroscience organization (hence its acronym in English, EYRA). The second, academic excellence, converges with the first in the figure of Luz Rello (Madrid, 1984), the winner of last year´s edition, awarded for improving the reading skills of people with dyslexia. Her next challenge: extending her scope to other learning disorders. Taking her youth and CV into account, there is little doubt that she will succeed.
Why did you decide to take part in the EYRA competition and how did you feel when you won it?
I recall I was informed by the Pompeu Fabra University [academic center where she has worked until now and where she has just obtained her Ph.D.] and they told me to apply. When I read the requirements and saw the CVs of previous winners, I told my bosses, “This is a different league”, but they insisted I send it anyway. It involves a lot of work and it entails sending -among other things- several recommendation letters, so I did. Still, I did not expect to win. When I found out I had won, I was very glad, of course, but on the other hand it involves great responsibility. Expectations placed on me and my work are now very high and, to some extent, it is a double-edged sword, great responsibility.
You just obtained your Ph.D. What is the subject of your thesis?
The aim was to find out what could be changed in a digital text to make it more accessible to people with dyslexia. Changes could be made in various fields, from design to content. To check what the most useful ones were we used eye-tracking technology, which objectively measures how people read by following the movement of their eyes. We noted that actions like writing certain fonts in bold improved the readability of digital texts.
And from this work, did you obtain any results that are immediately applicable?
In reality, we obtained few significant results, but they are indeed applicable. In fact, organizations such as the Department of Education of the Generalitat de Catalunya are integrating my thesis recommendations into their own documents. The findings fall into three categories: recommendations for adapting texts, a series of IT resources that companies can use to make their digital texts more accessible to people with dyslexia and an application that integrates the two previous points and which transforms digital texts into more user-friendly versions of the same texts.
You yourself suffer from a certain degree of dyslexia. Is that what motivated you to research into this disorder?
No, and I would like to make this point very clear. It is true that I -after finishing my degree in Linguistics- worked on the information processing of natural language and that my Ph.D. supervisor -Ricardo Baeza-Yates-, after noticing that I made many spelling mistakes and me telling him that it was due to my dyslexia, suggested that I should focus my work on improving the accessibility of texts for people with learning difficulties. But I decided to follow this path not because of myself or me having a bad time when I was a child, but due to social motivation and to being interested in helping people. I am also concerned about this message being transmitted because there are varying degrees of dyslexia and mine is mild, and I do not want my story to generate false expectations.
In addition to your research at the University, you have created -with two friends of yours- the start-up company Cookie Cloud, to which you devote your spare time. What does this entrepreneurial side stem from?
It is a business project –our turnover is still insufficient to call it a real company- with which we have developed an application called Piruletas. It can be downloaded for free on Apple´s IOS system and manages to improve dyslexic children´s spelling, but not their reading ability. We have assessed it by working with 48 children diagnosed with dyslexia and it originates from a different hypothesis to the one used in similar applications: the starting point is not the correct word, but one which is poorly written. By using the application, users can modify the word in order to spell it correctly. Usual learning is achieved by repeating the word that is correctly written until it is learnt. We have modified that concept.
What phase is Cookie Cloud in right now?
We are working hard. We already have the Spanish and English versions and we aim to develop a version in Catalan. We have also been contacted in order to adapt it to German, and a famous toy company called us to offer us the opportunity to include it in their tablets for children, but this agreement has not yet been closed.
Bearing in mind the R&D situation in Spain today, would you consider leaving this field and concentrating on your business?
Of course I have thought about it. However, I believe that in order to financially succeed with this business, I would have to learn many things I do not know at this point, and that we should also have a clear business model. Right now is not the time. In any case, if we chose to do this, I would like this not to be just another company, but a sustainable social enterprise; one from which we could earn a living, but whose extra profits would automatically be reinvested in R&D. I do not know if we will create it in Spain or the United States, where both the concept and legal framework for this model are more advanced.
You are in fact moving to the United States in a few months, where you will continue with your research. What are you planning to do there?
I was contacted by the Carnegie Mellon University, which is one of the most prestigious in my field. They offered me to conduct a postdoctoral residence there. What I like most, apart from the fact that the conditions are better than in Spain, is that they are giving me total freedom to research about whatever I want. Hence the decision to broaden my scope a bit.
And how would like to broaden it?
I would like to make it more comprehensive, to continue developing applications: not only for people with dyslexia, but also for individuals with other learning difficulties. To do this, I intend to work using crowdsourcing or open community collaboration. I must admit that I am at a very exciting time in my researching career.
Like many researchers, you are moving outside Spain. Do you intend to return?
Yes, of course, this is my home. I do not know how long it will take for me to come back, but the original idea is to stay there for a year and a half or two. The reasons why I want to return are not only personal, but also professional. I want my work to help people I know and that is one of my life´s motivation.