Welcome to the first issue of the new and improved SMB Newsletter! At the Society for Mathematical Biology, we are thrilled to have this fully updated and electronically accessible Newsletter representing our transition to an online and up-to-date society.

This milestone of establishing the SMB Newsletter as fully electronic allows us to reach the widest audience possible, and has been the long-term vision of the current board of directors of the Society. In addition, by establishing an international group of Newsletter editors, we have assurance that the focus is relevant to all members of our Society. Finally, moving to this new format continues to keep the Society in-line with reducing our environmental footprint. In fact, our entire updated SMB website is now at the cutting edge – with Twitter and Facebook feeds, as well as links to up-to-date information on items such as the annual meeting, subgroups, awards and grants. We hope you will visit it weekly to stay updated.

This step into the current (and future) electronic dialog on relevant topics, issues and science places SMB at the forefront of mathematical biology pursuits for its members.

I hope you enjoy this first issue as much as I have!

Denise Kirschner
President, Society for Mathematical Biology

Hello from the SMB Newsletter editors!

We are Drs Stacey Finley, Jennifer Flegg, and Robin Thompson – Editors of the newly released SMB Newsletter. Together, we are really pleased to present the first issue of the newsletter, which will be published quarterly.

This newsletter is meant to serve our academic community, providing useful and interesting information for SMB members. We hope you will take the time to read the articles and engage with the newsletter by sharing it with colleagues and contributing new content.

What to expect

Each issue of the SMB Newsletter will have three main sections. You can expect to see new content for each of these sections in every issue of the newsletter.

  1. News – This section will provide a summary of events, meetings, and happenings relevant to the Society for Mathematical Biology.
  2. People – Here, we will introduce you to mathematical biologists from around the world and highlight their work and impact on the field, through articles and interviews.
  3. Editorial – This section will highlight relevant published journal articles or online content in mathematical biology.

To see the articles in this issue, click the links at the bottom of this page.

How to contribute

This newsletter can only be successful if it provides useful content to SMB members. We are open to your suggestions on how to improve the content or add new sections. If you have any content or articles you would like to submit to the newsletter, please send them our way! Feel free to contact any of us – and the primary contact editor is Robin.

Get to know us

The SMB membership spans different continents, and we are no different! Robin is based in the United Kingdom (University of Oxford), Stacey is located in the United States (University of Southern California), and Jennifer is in Australia (University of Melbourne). So that you can get to know us a little better, each of the first three issues of the newsletter will be accompanied by an interview with one of us! To see Robin’s interview, please click here.

We hope you enjoy this issue of the newsletter!

Stacey, Jen and Robin
Editors, SMB Newsletter

Month of Mathematical Biology

Dr Jennifer Flegg

This year will see an exciting time for mathematical biology in Australia, with the Month of Mathematical Biology. This event encompasses two MATRIX workshops and the SMB Annual Meeting.

From 1 July 2018 – 7 July 2018, MATRIX will host a workshop on Virtual tissues: towards drug discovery and improved therapies. Organised by James Osborne (University of Melbourne), Helen Byrne (University of Oxford), Edmund Crampin (University of Melbourne), Alexander Fletcher (Sheffield University) and Edward Green (University of Adelaide), this workshop will bring together world-leading mathematical modellers, systems biologists experimentalists, and clinicians to discuss the future of multicellular modelling in biology and its application to drug discovery and improved therapies.

July 8 – 12 sees the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Society for Mathematical Biology & the Japanese Society for Mathematical Biology in Sydney, which will cover a broad sweep of applications of mathematics to biology. The conference is hosted by the University of Sydney, and includes a welcome reception on Sunday evening, an evening poster session on Monday and a Women’s lunch on Tuesday. The conference dinner will be held at Luna Park at the northern foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Society for Mathematical Biology is organising an Early Career Workshop on Sunday 8 July before the start of the conference. For further conference details, please see www.smb2018.org.

Finally, from 15 July 2018 – 20 July 2018, MATRIX will host another workshop on Spatio-temporal stochastic systems in biology. The workshop aims to improve mathematical frameworks for the study of cellular and molecular systems in biology and is organised by Mark Flegg (Monash University), Kevin Burrage (Queensland University of Technology), Ruth Baker (University of Oxford), Samuel Isaacson (Boston University) and Hans Othmer (University of Minnesota).

MATRIX is an international research institute which runs programs where world leading researchers in the mathematical sciences come together to collaborate. Professor Jan de Gier, Director of MATRIX, comments “MATRIX is excited to host the Month of Mathematical Biology. This research program is a fantastic opportunity for the international community in mathematical and computational biology to get together and exchange new ideas in a residential and research-intensive environment.”

Research interview – Professor Ruth Baker

By Dr Robin Thompson

Robin Thompson talks with Ruth Baker, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Oxford and member of SMB Board of Directors, about her research and the advantages and challenges of an academic life.

Your research focuses on modelling biological developmental and cell biology.  How did you get into these fields?

I studied maths as an undergraduate at Wadham College in Oxford, and took the third year mathematical biology course lectured by Philip Maini. I went on to a DPhil with Philip and (former SMB President) Santiago Schnell, and it was at that stage that I became interested in developmental biology and somitogenesis – the segementation of the head-tail axis of vertebrate embryos – in particular. I was then awarded a UK Research Council 5 year fellowship alongside a Junior Research Fellowship in Oxford, during which I spent six months in each of Germany, USA and Australia, before taking up a permanent position in Oxford.

What do you foresee as the biggest challenges in developmental biology?

Initial modelling studies in this field provided insights into the mechanisms underlying biological development. But at that stage, links with data were mostly qualitative. Now, with increasingly detailed datasets from a number of sources – such as single cell sequencing and microscopy – there are many more opportunities to integrate models and data. Learning how to make use of the vast quantities of available data is one of the biggest challenges facing mathematical biologists. Another significant challenge in developmental biology is linking biochemical and biomechanical models, and understanding the interactions and feedback between these types of process.

Do you have a favourite research paper written by another mathematical biologist?

The first paper that springs to mind is “Models of dispersal in biological systems” by Othmer, Dunbar and Alt. The paper provides an excellent introduction to stochastic modelling of spatial dispersal with two different types of model, considers diffusion limits and parameterising models using data. It is a great read!

What are you currently researching?

Members of my research group are conducting a wide range of projects at the moment. Some of those projects are examining specific questions about particular systems, and others are focussing on developing mathematical methods. As an example of the second of these, I am currently interested in developing methods for model parameterisation, with applications in developmental and cell biology.

Have you encountered any surprising results in your research?

Some of my research has been about neural crest development – and models have changed the way that this system is thought about. Interestingly, during one of my projects on that topic, we ran models at the same time that experiments were being conducted. The modellers and experimenters did not want to influence each other’s thinking, so we worked independently and did not discuss our results until the experiments were complete and the models had been run. One of the experiments “failed”, and cells did not migrate – but we had found the same result under identical conditions in the model! So that was a surprising result for the experimenters, and a good example of modelling providing insight into the behaviour of a biological system!

Do you find the complexity of developmental biological systems daunting?

In general, I try to keep models as simple as possible. I tend to start with the simplest model that I think can recapitulate observations of the biological system under consideration; even very simple models can generate useful predictions.. Sometimes additional complexity is required, for example a model might need to consider individual cell behaviours if the datasets being used to parameterise the models contain data at that scale. A related question that I am interested in is, given a particular dataset, what is the most complex model that could be parameterised? And how much mechanistic insight can be obtained given available data?

Have you found working with experimenters challenging?

I have found collaborating a very positive experience – and I have learnt a huge amount, especially at the discussion stage before a model has even been developed. Collaboration has also led me to think about different systems in ways that I had not previously.

What advice would you give to a junior mathematical biologist?

Good question! I think that a key piece of advice is to be aware of the goals you need to achieve to be successful. For example, if you are planning to apply for a fellowship in a few years, it is worth reading the application form now to understand precisely what you have to do to put yourself in the best position to successfully obtain the fellowship. This requires a lot of organisation – but these days it is perhaps more important than ever before to be strategic when seeking out academic success.  I would also recommend that junior mathematical biologists collaborate with other academics, since that can be very rewarding, and that they build a presence for themselves within their field not only by publishing papers but also using social media.

What is the best part of your job?

I love the freedom and flexibility to work on problems that interest me, and the opportunity to change focus if I come across interesting questions slightly removed from my current work. I love learning and expanding my knowledge and skillsets. I also enjoy training others in mathematics and mathematical biology. Oxford is a very good place to work – the department is excellent and I have great colleagues.

What is the worst part of your job?

Academia tends to be a high pressured environment that places multiple, competing demands on your time – you have to be careful to make sure to maintain a good work/life balance!

What do you do in your spare time?

I have two children – aged two and four – so I spend most of my spare time with them. That’s another great part of the job – the flexibility to arrange my schedule so I can spend time with my kids!

Research Round-up

Dr Stacey Finley

In this quarter’s Editorial section of the SMB Newsletter, we highlight relevant research papers, professional development articles, and a newsletter focused on mathematical oncology.

Research Highlights

The Bulletin of Mathematical Biology, the official journal of the Society, has published its first three issues of 2018.

The issues contain 27 original research articles that present exciting new research including studies of atherosclerotic plaques and HIV transmission dynamics; approaches to analyse ODE models of enzymatic reactions and the properties of tree-based networks; and predicting the efficacy of radiation treatment in cancer or a vaccination protocol for controlling the spread of Zika virus.

In addition, two research methods articles were published: estimating spawning behaviour in fish biology and a multiscale approach to characterize the structure of biomolecules.

We encourage you to browse through the titles, and see what piques your interest! And, don’t forget to consider the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology for your next manuscript submission.
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018

Professional Development

Ten Simple Rules is a series of editorials from the journal PLoS Computational Biology that offers relevant insight and advice for researchers at all career stages. We highlight four editorials that have been published over the past year for trainees and for research advisors.

For early career trainees:

For research advisors:


Mathematical Oncology Newsletter

There are many applications of mathematical biology, including in cancer. This area of research, considered mathematical oncology, applies computational modeling to study cancer at multiple scales, from initiation through metastasis. Mathematical predictions generate testable hypotheses, many of which have been experimentally and clinically validated. There is a new effort to compile important updates and contributions to the field of mathematical oncology. The effort is led by Dr. Jeffrey West, a postdoctoral researcher working in the laboratory of Dr. Alexander R. A. Anderson at the Moffitt Cancer Center.

“This weekly email newsletter is dedicated to all things mathematical oncology. We consolidate the important updates in the field of mathematical modeling in oncology into one, distilled form of communication. These might be links to publications, preprints, books, or even blog posts. Click on the following links to subscribe or follow the discussion using #MathOnco on Twitter. Is the field of mathematical oncology ready for the next (r)evolution? Join us!”
~ Jeffrey West, Ph.D.

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Interview with Dr Robin Thompson, Mathematical Epidemiologist at the University of Oxford and contact editor of SMB newsletter

Web: www.robin-thompson.co.uk/
Twitter: @RobinNThompson

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!

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