Research interview – Professor Helen Byrne
By Dr Robin Thompson
Robin talks with Helen Byrne, Professor of Biomedical Modelling at the University of Oxford and recipient of the 2018 Leah Edelstein-Keshet Prize.
You won the Leah Edelstein-Keshet prize for your research in modelling biomedical systems, coupled with your record of active leadership in mentoring scientific careers. Could you first tell us about your research background, and how you arrived in your current position?
While studying maths in Cambridge, I became increasingly interested in learning how mathematics could be used to solve real world problems. So, I moved to Oxford to study for a Masters in Mathematical Modelling and Numerical Analysis. I really enjoyed the course and was delighted when I was given the opportunity to continue the work from my dissertation (modelling combustion in porous media!) for a doctoral thesis and then postdoctoral research. At this stage, I had no clear idea about what career I wanted to pursue. It wasn’t until I started a postdoc at Hammersmith Hospital, and saw how mathematics could be applied to biomedical problems (e.g. fitting mathematical models to data from positron emission tomography scans to determine oxygen and glucose transport to tumours), that I found my niche. I didn’t get many publications from the postdoc at Hammersmith, but I learnt how to communicate with experimenters and clinicians and how to work as part of a multidisciplinary team; skills that have been invaluable throughout my career.
On hearing a young Mark Chaplain talk at a conference, I realised there was scope for using my mathematical training to study tumour growth. I approached Mark and we applied successfully for research funding. I worked with Mark at the University of Bath for a couple of years and then moved to a faculty post in Manchester. I stayed in Manchester for a couple of years before being invited to set up a mathematical biology group at the University of Nottingham. I spent many happy years in Nottingham, winning a personal fellowship that enabled me to focus wholly on research, securing promotion to Reader and Full Professor (and starting a family). While in Nottingham, I was delighted to play a role in establishing the Centre for Mathematical Medicine and Biology, which continues to flourish under Markus Owen’s leadership. Over time, my research links with Oxford (particularly Philip Maini and David Gavaghan) strengthened and this motivated me to apply for a faculty position. I returned to Oxford, with my family, almost eight years ago, and am now based in the Mathematical Institute’s Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology.
What attracted you to biomedical modelling?
A strong desire to use my mathematical knowledge to increase understanding of biomedical systems and, in the longer term, to help improve treatment outcomes for patients suffering from diseases such as cancer.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenges in your field?
Model selection and validation. As mathematical biology matures as a research field, increasing numbers of theoretical approaches are being used to model the same biomedical system. How are these models inter-related? Is one particular approach better suited to answer a particular question, or should we interrogate multiple models to generate averaged or ensemble answers? In a related vein, how can (and/or should) we use mathematical models to integrate the vast quantities of different types of data that can now be collected to characterise biomedical system? Which of these data are needed to answer a particular question? What role do mechanistic models have to play in integrating large and disparate datasets and how?
What is your favourite research paper (by another mathematical biologist)?
That’s a hard question. Probably either Turing’s 1952 paper on pattern formation or Greenspan’s 1972 and 1976 papers on tumour growth. Turing’s paper because it illustrates the power of mathematics to explain a counter-intuitive result and it has inspired so much of mathematical biology; Greenspan’s papers because they introduced me to tumour modelling.
What are you currently researching?
Lots of things – probably too many! My main research interests continue to focus on modelling the growth of solid tumours and their response to a range of treatments, including radiotherapy, immunotherapy, drug resistance and vascular targeting agents. I am also involved in projects modelling atherosclerosis and, as you know, Robin (because we co-supervise this student together) modelling comorbidity in populations in which multiple diseases are present.
What impact has your previous research had outside of academia?
To be honest, I think most of my research has yet to realise its full potential outside academia. That said, I hold a patent based on a research project with an experimentalist and bioengineer. The idea was to load macrophages with magnetic nanoparticles prior to their injection into patients. The macrophages migrate via chemotaxis to low oxygen tumour regions. If they accumulate in sufficient numbers then application of a magnetic field will cause tumour cell killing via hyperthermia. I have also played an active role in showcasing the benefits of multidisciplinary research and brokering new collaborations between experimentalists, clinicians and theoreticians. With John King (Nottingham), I pioneered the now well-established Mathematics-in-Medicine Study Group. At these weeklong workshops, mathematicians work with biomedical researchers to brain-storm pre-selected problems of biomedical interest. These meetings have generated numerous publications, catalysed many new research collaborations, and inspired similar events around the world.
What is your favourite research paper that you have written?
That’s another difficult question! Probably either the paper that has just been accepted for publication or the paper that has just been submitted and not yet received referees’ comments!
Given the inter-disciplinary nature of your research, you could be in a mathematics or biology department. Why mathematics?
During my career, I have enjoyed working in Mathematics Departments, Computer Science Departments and at a hospital – but I feel most at home surrounded by a majority of mathematicians! My colleagues challenge the mathematical aspects of my research and introduce me to new areas of mathematics (for example, at the moment, I’m particularly interested in learning topological data analysis, and applying it in biology and medicine). Through teaching, I get to meet and work with many talented students and nascent mathematical biologists!
Can you describe your role as a mentor?
I try to listen and be sensitive to an individual’s situation, to offer reassurance if it is needed, and make them aware of the progress that they have made. Where appropriate, I also offer practical advice and/or share personal experiences.
What makes a good mentor?
A good mentor listens and encourages, while also being honest, so that people can see for themselves where their talents lie and have the confidence to pursue their goals.
What advice would you give to a junior mathematical biologist?
Be curious and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions; that’s how you will develop your intuition. Where possible, find problems that interest and challenge you. Also, have confidence in your ability.
What is the best part of being a mathematical biologist?
What I most enjoy about being a mathematical biologist is having the freedom to learn about new areas of biology and the intellectual challenge of trying to identify questions or hypotheses that can be investigated using mathematical modelling.
Finally, what do you do in your spare time?
When I’m not acting as a private taxi driver for my children, I enjoy running and like to think there is still another marathon in my legs. I also recently started playing the piano again.
- HP Greenspan (1972). Models for the growth of a solid tumour by diffusion. Studies in Applied Mathematics. 52: 317-340.
- HP Greenspan (1976). On the growth and stability of cell cultures and solid tumours. J Theor. Biol. 56: 229-242.
- AM Turing (1952). The chemical basis of morphogenesis. Phil Trans Roy Soc London. Series B. 237 (641): 37-72.