Identical twin brothers Alan and Steven Davy were 10 years old when their father bought them a computer, sparking an interest that soon went beyond brotherly play. “We were interested, myself and Steven, in not only playing games but also programming different software and applications,” Alan recalls. Eventually the brothers, who now are 30, pursued research careers in computer science.
Like many identical twins, Alan and Steven are very close. “We’re the best of friends,” Steven says. Except for 4 years while they did their undergraduate degrees, they've stayed close, attending the same graduate program and, now, doing postdocs abroad at the same university. “We can spend so much time talking about different aspects of the job and we never get bored of each other,” Alan says.
Largely because of their closeness, the twins believe that in order for both to be successful, they need to differentiate themselves professionally. “Talking to each other, we were able to discover that we couldn’t do the exact same topic," Steven says. They figured out together how to pursue distinct topics while continuing to support each other's work.
Separate undergraduate experiences
Alan and Steven grew up in the Irish town of Waterford with two older brothers, one who became an electrician like their father and the other an office clerk, and a younger brother who became a graphic designer. In 1998, Alan enrolled at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) where he obtained a B.Sc. degree in applied computing in 2002. For his final-year project, he helped develop an algorithm to optimize merchandise delivery.
Steven applied to Trinity College Dublin. He was accepted, but postponed his studies so that he could, “Gather some money together [and] make sure that I did actually want to go to college,” he says. Partly he just wasn't sure he was ready to leave home. He started at Trinity a year later and obtained a B.A. in computer science in 2003. He got a taste of research during a part-time job at Media Lab Europe and did a final-year project at Trinity exploring biology-inspired distributed algorithms.
The separation proved useful, Steven says. The brothers visited each other often, and the distance helped them attain some independence and have some unique experiences.
Upon obtaining their undergraduate degrees, the two brothers each sought a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) at WIT. Both Alan and Steven are focused on improving the quality of telecommunications over the Internet, but early on, they tried “to separate the work a lot to make sure it was distinct,” Steven says. “We look at different aspects of a common problem.”
As computer users find new ways to use the Internet -- e-mail, video, voice over Internet protocol -- network operators must reallocate resources to meet new demands. “The core of my work [was] to propose … economically viable solutions that can be deployed on networks to reduce the cost of managing the networks and provisioning for these services,” Alan says. Steven, meanwhile, says that he was “looking at the quality and reliability of the whole network, ... making sure that the routers can be configured correctly so they can support traffic.”
Together, the twins helped “build a picture of how various parts of a network communications system interoperate,” Alan says. They introduced each other to new concepts and techniques and reviewed each other's algorithms. "Alan would discuss maybe how [a new algorithm] would impact his work, or he would talk about his experiences of using a similar algorithm, and he helped me understand. Or he would point me to some papers that I would have not read,” Steven says.
Despite their similarities, says Brendan Jennings, who co-supervised the two during their Ph.D. projects (each had a second supervisor in their fields of expertise) the twins started out with quite different skills. “Alan's background made him stronger in practical skills, whereas Steven had a stronger underpinning in theoretical aspects of computer science,” Jennings writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.
But “their progress was very much simultaneous, which I believe is a result of their very close relationship,” Jennings continues. “I always found it remarkable that they would arrive to the office at the same time, have coffee together, have lunch together, and leave together. It became clear to me that advice I had given to Alan would also be acted on by Steven and vice versa.”
A certain degree of competition also motivated the brothers to do the best they could. “Towards the end, a certain degree of sibling rivalry pushed them both to complete their theses roughly at the same time,” Jennings says.
Two fellowships, one institution
After receiving their Ph.D.s in 2008, the brothers took postdocs at TSSG, working on different European Commission–funded projects. Steven took part in the Autonomic Internet project, broadly continuing the research he did for his Ph.D. but adding how multiple organizations can manage their networks together. Alan contributed to the EFIPSANS project, helping to develop self-optimizing functions that would allow networks to readily adapt to traffic changes.
The twins then applied for Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering & Technology (IRCSET)-Marie Curie International Mobility Fellowships in Science Engineering and Technology (INSPIRE). Both proposed to spend the fellowship's 18-month outgoing phase working at the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC) in Barcelona, Spain, in different groups.
Again, they worked together, helping each other prepare applications and asking “was it feasible? Could it be done in the timeframe? Was it novel enough?” Steven says. Being aware that they could be in direct competition, they were careful to show that the two proposals would complement each other.
Alan learned that he had won a fellowship in March; Steven was put on the reserve list and had to wait until August. Alan moved to Barcelona last October; Steven followed in January.
Looking toward the future
Steven will return to Ireland next January for the 12-month return phase of his fellowship; Alan will follow in April. After that, they're not sure what will happen.
They may part ways geographically. Steven, whose wife Sinéad and son Jack followed him to Barcelona, is ready to settle down; he aspires to a permanent position at WIT. Alan, whose long-term partner Louise also came to Barcelona with him, is more of a traveller; he spent a month during his postdoc at UPC, and a term at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, India. Alan “still has quite a bit more traveling in him I think,” Steven says. Alan says he also will consider moving into industry.
But that's far from certain. Alan, too, may seek a permanent position at WIT. Indeed, both brothers may apply for 5-year starting grants from the European Research Council. They'll give themselves a couple of years, Alan says, to develop their proposals, talk to people, and figure out what the best strategy would be for pursuing complementary starting grants.
Wherever they go, the twins are likely to continue to work closely together. “We haven’t done as much collaboration at the moment because we wanted to develop our careers as individuals,” Alan says. But they look forward to the day when they are both established so that they "can be free to collaborate and work on projects together.”
Elisabeth Pain is Contributing Editor for Europe.