Research interview – Associate Professor Peter Kim
By Dr. Jennifer Flegg
Jen talks with Associate Professor Peter Kim from the University of Sydney and incoming SMB Board of Directors member, about his research in mathematical biology.
Your research focuses on mathematical biology across a range of topics (mathematical immunology, cancer dynamics, virus dynamics, and human evolution). How did you get into this field?
I have usually found new research areas through serendipitous social encounters. During the first year of my PhD at Stanford University, I met Doron Levy at an afternoon tea and became interested in mathematical modelling of the immune system during cancer dynamics. During my postdoc at the University of Utah, I met Kristen Hawkes, an anthropologist, and began working with her on human evolution. In particular, we worked on a mathematical model of the “grandmother hypothesis”, which seeks to explain the existence of human post-menopausal longevity through the adaptive benefit of intergenerational care of offspring.
What attracted you to mathematical biology?
It was the excitement of being able to work with and interact with many different disciplines, while still doing mathematics.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenges in mathematical biology?
A big challenge is being able to tease apart what is a verbal argument or assumption and what can be quantified or known. I find when working in biology, one really needs to dig deep into the literature (or by speaking to biologists) to find out what is established and what is primarily an assumption.
What is something exciting that you are currently working on?
I find human evolution a truly fascinating topic. There are so many subtleties and nuances that need to be investigated. There are many unanswered questions, such as “why do we (humans) do what we do?” By mathematically modelling such a topic, we are forced to make verbal arguments more quantitative, which hopefully increases our understanding of the field.
What impact has your research had outside of academia?
Our research on the grandmother hypothesis excites many people, so our work has made it’s way into public lectures and popular science articles on the web.
What is your favourite research paper that you have written?
During my PhD, I was able to simplify the complexity of an agent-based model for the treatment of leukaemia. I was building on another research group’s model, but it ran too slowly to be able to do as many simulations as I needed. At one point, while chatting over dessert with a friend about this problem, I had a thought of a way to simplify the model and speed up the simulations considerably, about 1,000 to 5,000 times faster. Here is the reference:
P.S. Kim, P.P. Lee, D. Levy. Modeling Imatinib-Treated Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia: Reducing the Complexity of Agent-Based Models. Bull. Math. Biol. (2008) 70:728.
How have you found working with experimentalists?
I have really enjoyed interacting with the experimental biology community. Perhaps this is partly true because I tend to work with collaborators that I also get along with personally, which makes our interactions very pleasant.
What is one piece of advice you would give to a junior mathematical biologist?
Perseverance. Don’t be afraid to try an idea for a new method. There is no “best method” and even if there were, as researchers we want to push the area forward. If you have an idea, try it out. If it turns out to be wrong, that’s ok.
What is the best part of your job? What is the worst part of your job?
The best part of my job by far is supervising students, especially PhD students. The worst part is that it can sometimes be difficult to sell our field to granting agencies.
Finally, what do you do in your spare time?
I really enjoy exercising and going to the gym. I find that even if I’m feeling tired or discouraged after a tough day at work, exercising seems to clear my mind and let me reset.