Reflections on the IMA Lighthill-Thwaites Prize Talk Session and BAMC 2019

This year, five members of the mathematical biology (‘StAMBio’) group from the University of St Andrews travelled all the way to Bath to attend the British Applied Mathematics Colloquium (BAMC): Mark, Cicely, Fiona, Chiara and myself.

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I was honoured to be invited to present as a IMA Lighthill-Thwaites Prize Nominee at this year’s BAMC.

5 out of 6 IMA Lighthill-Thwaites Prize nominees on stage

Moreover, it was very inspiring to see the presentations of the other five early career nominees – I certainly would not have been able to pick a winner from their entrees for the prize, which is awarded biannually for an original piece of research by a young mathematician – not limited to research from the UK – by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA). Work presented included ideas on how to use mathematics to reduce noise, to improve kidney stone removal, to optimise mixing and to explain how insects walk up walls.

I presented my mathematical framework for modelling the metastatic spread of cancer. For this framework I developed a mathematics-derived computational model (C++) that describes how single cancer cells spread from the original tumour location to secondary sites in the body. This is a very first model to describe the secondary metastatic spread of single cancer cells in space. The cell-based setup allows the modelling framework to account for the genetic makeup of cancer cells in a particular patient. When combined with modern medical imaging and gene-sequencing technology, the metastasis framework is an ideal prototype for predictive software that can be used in a clinical setting to inform oncologists. This way, treatment can be individualised and optimised for each cancer patient. Predictive models that include metastatic spread are particularly important as this secondary spread is responsible for 90% of cancer-related deaths.

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In addition to the high standard of presentations and work of all finalists, I find worthy pointing out that – judging from the contributions at the IMA Lighthill-Thwaites Prize minisymposium – many of today’s young applied mathematicians do not solely stick to developing mathematical models while leaving experimentalists to do the ‘hands on’ work. Instead, our curiosity drives us to create our own lab models, to collaborate with life scientists, clinicians and the industry. Moreover, as for example the criteria for the poster prize award at the BAMC highlighted, work by scientists that combines knowledge from two or more areas of mathematics, e.g. analysis and numerics, is valued.

20190427_145022.jpgFinally, during this year’s BAMC, I “branched out” a little and checked out the minisymposium on Machine Learning and Inverse Problems. Upon arrival, I found the lecture theatre to be crowded. People were clearly interested – many happy to be standing for the duration of multiple talks (I found a spot to sit on the floor). While I did not understand every detail, I found an answer to a question that I had asked myself when using inverse methods for parameter estimation for my latest work – Can we use ML to speed up our mathematically more rigorous parameter estimation process? (YES.) I also sensed a notable ‘buzz’ throughout the room. The scientists were excited – something new and exciting was happening…

Overall, BAMC 2019 was a success. The mathematics presented were truly applied – often connected to industrial applications – and yet did not lack rigour. Well done for organising such a buzzing event, University of Bath!

Judging from presentations from all career levels at the conference, I predict a bright future for Britain’s applied mathematicians. I do hope that, whatever the political future may hold for the UK, scientists will continue to be supported for collaborations beyond the UK’s borders. BAMC 2020 at my alma mater in the hip, fun and beautiful Westend of Glasgow certainly will be another step in the right direction!