Inspiring peopleRuediger Thul

Modelling how life works
Member of Languages, Text and Society
Thul Ruediger v2
How would you explain your research?

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.
What inspired you to pursue this area?

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.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

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.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Be curious. Find the questions that fascinate you, and then talk to experienced researchers to plan the best way to answer them.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

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. 

How does being based at the University allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?

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.

What advice would you give your younger self?

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.

What research other than your own really excites you right now?
I am excited about computers being able to produce and understand speech in an increasingly human fashion. The possibility of asking my laptop, tablet or phone a question that I would normally ask another person and to receive a sensible and intelligible answer intrigues me. With advances in computing power and miniaturisation, it is fascinating to speculate when we will be able to engage with computers in high-level discussions and to fully control complex appliances with our voices irrespective of our accents, dialects or speech melodies. Along the same lines, I wonder when computers will be so powerful and sophisticated that they will be able to instantaneously translate – then will our global world become an even more closely-knit society? 
You’re thrown 100 years into the future – what’s the first thing you’d look up?

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 Theme
Cultures and Communication

Research Priority Area
Languages Texts and Society

View Ruediger's full profile

Dr Ruediger Thul is an Assistant Professor in Applied Mathematics in the School of Mathematical Sciences.

World-class research at the University of Nottingham

University Park
+44 (0) 115 951 5151

Athena Swan Silver Award