Interiew with Dr Jennifer Flegg, Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and co-editor of SMB newsletter
What is your current role and how long have you been there?
I am a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Melbourne. I’ve been in this role for almost a year and a half. Within the School of Mathematics and Statistics, I am part of the Mathematical Biology group. My research focuses on a few different areas within mathematical biology; modelling of infectious diseases and wound healing are the main areas that I work on. I currently hold a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
What do you like best about your role?
I love developing new mathematical models and analysing them or solving them computationally. I really like working with research students on a variety of different topics, and working together to understand a biological system and how it can be modelled. I also really like working in an interdisciplinary area like mathematical biology. Finding a biologist that speaks a little maths, and learning to speak some biology myself, it seems like you can make progress on a topic together.
Why did you choose your current career path?
I always loved studying mathematics at high school, so I decided to do an undergraduate degree in mathematics, much to my parents’ dismay (who didn’t really know what sort of job this would lead to). In my second year of university, I took a subject that I really liked in mathematical modelling which had a large component of mathematical biology. At the end of my second year, the lecturer of the subject asked me to do a summer research project on tumour modelling and then a year later he asked me to do a summer project on wound healing. This then turned into an honours project and then a PhD project.
At that point, I knew I wanted to stay in academia since this would allow me to do research on topics that I wanted to investigate. So, I went overseas and did a postdoc at the University of Oxford developing mathematical models of how resistance to the drugs used to treat malaria spreads over space and time. I then returned to Australia to take up a teaching and research position at Monash University in 2014 before moving to my current position at the University of Melbourne in 2017.
What is one project you currently work on and what does it involve?
I’m currently working on making some predictive maps of drug resistance in Africa to a drug called SP (sulphadoxine pyrimethamine). This drug is used as a preventative for pregnant women against malaria and we need to know where we can use it and where we can’t use it (because of resistance). Using data collected at discrete places over Africa and over time, I’m working to make a continuous predictive map of SP resistance as it currently stands. This involves working with data stakeholders to access the right data, deciding on a suitable model to use, implementing that model computationally and producing/presenting results that can be interpreted by policy makers.
Where is the best place you have travelled for work? And why?
I really loved travelling to Vientiane (Laos) in 2011 for a conference on malaria. The location was beautiful, architecture was amazing, people were really friendly and the conference was ok too 🙂
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
One piece of advice that I’ve received that I’ve found really useful (and I try to implement) is to not compare myself to others too much. This is sometimes difficult, since academia is based on competing against peers for papers, grants, students, promotions etc. So instead I try to set myself goals (short, medium and long term) and decide what I need to do to achieve these goals. I then work on getting to these day-by-day.
Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know.
I’m a big fan of the sitcom Seinfeld and at any point in time, I’m probably making my way through the entire set of episodes. Kramer is my favourite character (who else?) and when I went to New York in 2012, the first thing I wanted to do was go on the Kenny Kramer Reality Tour.