All of us know calcium. We get a healthy dose of it with every sip of milk – and doctors tell us that it is good for us. But there is another facet to it. Without calcium, our heart would stop beating, information would not be relayed in our brain and our pancreas would stop producing insulin.
The question that fascinates me is: how does calcium do all of this? As it turns out, the answer lies in the behaviour of individual cells. I construct and analyse mathematical models that describe the rich dynamical repertoire of intracellular calcium. This requires the application of mathematical techniques from a variety of fields, including network theory.
Such modelling techniques offer rich opportunities for interdisciplinary approaches in other fields. With colleagues in the School of English, for example, we are modelling data in novel ways to better understand how we process text when reading. This has major implications on how we learn a second language, what approaches to pursue in speech language therapy, or deciding whether terms and conditions are ‘clear’ enough to be legally binding.
Modelling techniques offer rich opportunities for interdisciplinary approaches in other fields.
It is tempting to look for that one moment or person that sets you off on a path. For me, it has been more like a journey where I met a number of inspiring people – from school teachers to eminent professors to close friends – and each of them left a little mark that eventually brought me to where I am. I have always been fascinated by many aspects of physics, mathematics and biology, and what these people did for me was to inspire me and drove me to consider how I might combine my diverse interests into one coherent research path.
It is difficult to narrow it down to one moment. As researchers, we live for making new discoveries and expanding our understanding, and I have been fortunate to have had some of these 'eureka' moments. Nevertheless, one particular moment that stands out was when I was awarded an Early Career Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust. This allowed me to pursue independent research and ultimately got me where I am today.
Be curious. Find the questions that fascinate you, and then talk to experienced researchers to plan the best way to answer them.
I think the biggest challenge is working at different scales. We know that crucial processes occur at vastly different scales, both in space and time. On one of the smallest scales, the activation of a molecule can determine whether a cardiac muscle cell contracts or not, or whether a neuron sends information to its neighbours or fails to do so. Ultimately, we would like to understand the behaviour of the whole heart or brain, and the biggest challenge is how to faithfully integrate the dynamics of a single cell to groups of cells to a whole organ – or even the whole body.
My research is inherently interdisciplinary, and the University offers an ideal research environment for this. For example, I have started a collaboration with Dr Kathy Conklin in the School of English that models eye-tracking data from reading experiments. Through the RPA Languages, Texts and Society, we received funding for a pilot study that has already laid the foundations for a much bigger project. This exciting collaboration has led us to address novel questions that can only be answered by bringing together disciplines and people – Mathematics and Linguistics – that don’t generally talk to each other. Having the freedom and support to explore such cross-disciplinary projects is a unique value of the University.
I would advise my younger self to look around much more, learn more about the world and the different opportunities that are available. Over the last 20 years I have discovered fields that I did not know about when I was younger, such as psycholinguistics, and which intrigue me now. While it is important to stay focused and pursue clearly defined questions, it is crucial to keep an open mind and to look for connections between fields that at first sight seem unrelated. By looking at them again, we might find relations that open up completely new avenues, which is something I find extremely rewarding.
I would find out whether we managed to create true artificial intelligence and whether robots play a dominant role in society. And if the latter is true, what is it that robots do.
Global Research ThemeCultures and Communication
Research Priority AreaLanguages Texts and Society
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