Research interview – Professor Naoki Masuda
By Dr. Jennifer Flegg
Jen talks with Naoki Masuda, Senior Lecturer in Engineering Mathematics at University of Bristol and recipient of the 2018 Junior Akira Okubo Prize.
You won the Junior Akira Okubo Prize for your outstanding breadth of research, ranging from neuroscience to epidemiology to game theory, and for the outstanding originality of his ideas. Could you first tell us about your research background, and how you arrived in your current position?
My PhD is from computational neuroscience. During the PhD, I met some seminal network science papers and various work on evolution of cooperation. Japan has been strong in the latter topic, so I was exposed to relevant figures as well. Then, I started to work on these two topics around the end of my PhD. In retrospect, I lacked a strong focus and did research on whatever I got interested in. This is my strength and weakness. Since around 2007, I started to tilt my research focus towards the intersection between mathematics and biological data or experiments, rather than purely theoretical stuff. Then, I started to collaborate with experimentalists in various fields ranging from behavioral biology and psychology to neuroimaging. Although I continue to work on purely theoretical or computational studies, such as epidemic models on networks and repeated games, I think I am aiming to be a blend of mathematics and biological data, particularly, behavior and any network-related data.
What attracted you to your field of research?
I love populations of something including the case of networks. I am also interested in behavior and society of humans and animals. These two preferences have consistently been affecting my choice of the field of research and individual projects, leading to what I am now.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenges in your field?
Across different mathematical biology fields I am engaged in, I think how to understand biological or behavioral data with the power of mathematics remains a big challenge. I believe that dynamical systems, stochastic processes, these types of modelling techniques in individual domains, are really beneficial to this end, in addition to statistical, AI and machine learning techniques.
What is your favorite research paper (by another mathematical biologist)?
Too many papers to raise, but let me raise just one. A paper which really inspired me during my PhD is the spatial prisoner’s dilemma game paper by Nowak and May (Nature, 359, 826-829, 1992). Years later I learned that this work has remarkable implications in cooperation on general contact networks too.
What are you currently researching?
Network epidemiology, time-varying networks, neuroimaging data, theory of cooperation, modelling and data analysis of animal collectives.
What is your favorite research paper that you have written?
Watanabe et al., PNAS, 111, 3990-3995, 2014. This is not a mathematical biology but purely experimental paper. In this work, we put together different ideas and techniques, from neuroimaging to social psychology experiments (doing experiments without deception) and the known theory of indirect reciprocity including my own studies in the past. We showed that indirect reciprocity of two types, reputation-based and pay-it-forward, have different neural mechanisms. This work would have been impossible if I had not been doing both evolutionary game theory and neuroimaging data analysis.
How have you found working with experimentalists?
It is always fun. It always starts from a communication between very different parties with different interests. Sometimes collaboration works well and sometimes it does not. I am familiar with this process by now and relatively quick in judging if it is likely to work out or not. I enjoy communications with experimentalists towards collaboration, no matter whether it eventually blossoms into actual collaboration or not. I learn various new things regardless of the outcome through such communication processes.
What advice would you give to a junior mathematical biologist?
Talk to various people, from experimentalists to mathematicians, those working on the molecular scale to society of animals, those in different continents belonging to different universities etc.
What is the best part of being a mathematical biologist?
I think the broadness. A mathematical biologist can be somebody very mathematical or somebody who is data-centric or hybrid with experimentalist. I feel the mathematical biology community is very generous on who is counted as a mathematical biologist. Partly thanks to this, mathematical biology is one of the few communities I feel I belong to, and I am very proud of it.
Finally, what do you do in your spare time?
Nowadays I have little spare time as the father of three kids. But I always try to find time to play the piano. I also jog once a week, for 1 hour, no matter how busy or lazy I am.