Interview with Dr Robin Thompson, Mathematical Epidemiologist at the University of Oxford and contact editor of SMB newsletter
What is your current role and how long have you been there?
I am a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, one of the colleges at the University of Oxford. My work involves developing and analysing mathematical models to inform strategies for controlling infectious disease outbreaks. My fellowship will last for three years in total, and I have been in the role for six months so far.
What do you like best about your role?
I love that I have the freedom to choose which problems I work on, so I can pick topics that I find particularly interesting. I really like most of the aspects of the job, though – collaborating with other researchers is great, and the chances to travel and teach are fun too!
Why did you choose your current career path?
I studied mathematics as an undergraduate in Oxford, and undertook a summer project in mathematical biology at the end of my third year supervised by Ruth Baker and Kit Yates. I knew then that I wanted to continue doing research in mathematical biology, and epidemiology was an area that appealed to me. So I applied to Cambridge for a PhD in mathematical epidemiology, and my postdoc and fellowship followed on from that.
What is one project you currently work on and what does it involve?
I have just come to the end of a project – published in PLoS Computational Biology this week (journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1006014) – in which we were investigating whether or not it is always best to control infectious disease outbreaks as quickly as possible. Control early in an outbreak can be beneficial, since the outbreak might be suppressed before the pathogen sweeps through the host population. However, later control has the advantage that it allows transmission parameters to be estimated more accurately and interventions to be optimised. Deciding when to initiate control is therefore an optimal stopping problem, and involves balancing the benefits of waiting against the potential costs of the pathogen becoming widespread. We came up with an algorithm to allow policy-makers to decide when the optimal time to introduce interventions has been reached.
Where is the best place you have travelled for work? And why?
Good question! I really enjoyed a hackathon I attended in summer 2016 in Berkeley, because I learnt a lot from the epidemiologists and mathematical modellers that were there. We wrote an R package and a software app for assessing the pandemic potential of an outbreak from data on symptomatic cases, which was a lot of fun. Berkeley seemed like a great place to work, too.
I was also lucky to have the chance to visit some really amazing places during my PhD and postdoc – including Brazil, Beijing, New Zealand and Colorado. Going forward, I would love to have the chance to visit Japan to collaborate with Hiroshi Nishiura – I admire his work.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
My parents encouraged me to take advantage of any opportunity I was offered (apart from playing rugby!) and pursue a diverse range of interests. I have tried to take that approach in my research career too, and get involved in lots of different projects – including the SMB newsletter!
Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know.
When I am not doing research, I love playing cricket. Later this summer, I will play against a team from the Refugee Cricket Project in London. I am really looking forward to that, and learning more about what sounds like a really excellent project. I guess some of my colleagues will find out about it, when I am not at work that day!