Well done Zara! There was no escaping the crayfish in the end...
From 1991 to 1994 I went to Wolgarston High School in Penkridge, Staffordshire. From 1994 to 1996 I attended the Sixth Form at the same school.
I got both my degrees from the Department of Mathematics at the University of Leeds: a BSc Maths degree (1999) and a PhD in Mathematical Biology (2003).
Between 2004 and 2006 I worked in the fisheries group at the Marine Institute in Galway, Ireland. Since the end of 2006 I have worked as a Maths lecturer at the University of Essex.
I am a Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Biology.
Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Essex
Favourite thing to do in my job: Working together with other scientists to solve problems and find out new things.
I use maths and computer simulations to study the behaviour of animals and their interactions with the environment they live in.
I am a ‘theoretical ecologist’, which means I use maths and computer simulations to study problems in ecology. In particular, I am interested in the behaviour of animals and their interactions with each other and the environment they live in.
One of the main interests I have is studying animal movement. In a lot of my studies I try to look for general types of behaviour across many different animal species. For example, how do some animals navigate and migrate huge distances? Why do some animals form social groups? To answer these types of questions I work with ecologists who help me understand the biological reasons for the animal behaviour and they often also provide me with data to analyse. At the moment I am working on the movement and behaviour of coral reef fish, the behaviour of tiny swimming plankton (which we have to film through a microscope), and also the behaviour of human crowds!
I am also interested in how animal species interact and how their populations change over time. One application of this type of research is my study of fisheries and how fishermen behave. This is important as many fish stocks are thought to be at very low levels and we need to understand how many fish we can catch sustainably so that there are enough left for future generations.
Examples of simulated animal movement paths
(left: the spread of the animal population in space; right: individual animal tracks)
Examples of how we simulate group interactions in a virtual fish school. Each individual is subject to different ‘rules’ for how it behaves depending on how close it is to its neighbours: a) if it is too close to its neighbours it tries to move away to avoid collisions; b) if its neighbours are neither too close, nor too far away, it tries to move in the same direction as them; c) if it is too far away from its neighbours it tries to move closer to them to maintain the group; d) if it is too far away from any other members of the group then it moves independently.
My Typical Day
What I like about my job is that every day I do different things and I can decide what I spend my research time doing.
My day is quite different depending on whether I have to teach lectures that day or not. Teaching takes up most of my day during term-time so I don’t get as much time as I would like to do scientific research. However, teaching students about the things I am interested in is very satisfying (when they listen!) and I am always pleased when I get students interested in the topics and subjects I teach. The best thing is seeing students who I have taught go on to become independent scientists themselves.
If I have time to do research then this will often involve programming a computer simulation to look at a particular problem (e.g. how animals might behave in a group). This can be frustrating sometimes (when it doesn’t work) but it is also good fun as you can control the ‘rules’ about how everything in your simulation behaves (it is a bit like designing a computer game). The key thing is to make sure the simulation will give some results which are relevant to the real world problem that I am interested in.
A lot of my time is also taken up with meetings with other scientists and people who I work with. I supervise a number of PhD students and I like to meet regularly with them to discuss how they are getting on with their own research (a PhD is an advanced degree that you get by completing a research project). One of the key things I need to do every day is communicate well with scientists from other backgrounds – I work closely with biologists, psychologists, computer scientists and other mathematicians so it is important that we can all understand what each other is saying (this is not always easy!)
As a scientist I travel quite a lot. I am often invited to give talks about my research at other universities, while I try to attend scientific meetings and conferences when I can. I work closely with scientists in Ireland and have to travel there quite regularly. As part of my work I also sometimes get asked to attend meetings in Europe to give advice to the EU about fisheries.
I regularly get asked to review the work of other scientists (to check the work they are doing is correct) – this is known as ‘peer review’ and is a very important part of doing scientific research.
What I'd do with the prize money
I would use the money to pay for local school children to help me with real scientific research by taking part in experiments on how human crowds behave.
One of my current research interests is how human crowds behave (e.g. people evacuating a building on fire, a football crowd leaving a stadium). However, to test some of the ideas we have about human crowd behaviour we need some volunteers to take part in experiments!
I would use the money to pay for local school children to visit the University of Essex and take part in a scientific experiment themselves. This will involve simple experiments in our lab to test how groups of people behave when given different instructions about how to move around in a small arena.
I would use the results of the experiment to write a scientific paper about human crowd behaviour. I will keep the student volunteers updated about the progress of the work and then visit them to present the conclusions once the work is completed and published.
An example of some earlier experiments we completed to test how human crowds might behave under different conditions. (Picture provided courtesy of my colleague Jolyon Faria)
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Friendly, imaginative, curious!
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Inspired some of my students to go on and become scientists themselves.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I like alternative bands like The Smiths and The Clash. Currently I am listening to The Vaccines a lot.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
I got married in a 12th Century castle!
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Health and happiness for my family and me, and a big house in the country to live in!
Tell us a joke.
Why was the Maths book unhappy? It had too many problems to solve!