Tell us about your career so far
I’m a computer scientist and mathematician by training, but have been fascinated by the world of biology since my interdisciplinary MSc, and specifically the biomedical sciences ever since my first postdoctoral position in Paul Bates’ lab at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute (LRI).
It was there that I developed computational models of the vascular system (in close collaboration with Holger Gerhardt’s lab).
I completed a second postdoc in this field at the LRI, where I was also let loose in Holger’s wet lab to learn experimental biology techniques that could help me refine and experimentally validate my computational model’s predictions.
I then set up my own integrated dry-wet lab at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, with satellite modelling labs embedded in biology departments at Boston University and Uppsala University, Sweden.
What prompted your move to the Crick?
I really loved the community feeling of the LRI when I was there, and there was lots of excitement about it merging with the National Institute of Medical Research to form the Crick. So when I saw the call for new physical sciences group leaders joint between the Crick and its university partners, it just seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to come back to my ‘roots’.
Tell us about your research
I work in the adaptive systems field, which is a new branch of artificial intelligence that tries to understand how organisms adapt to changing environments. This can be used to study group behaviours like how insects swarm or build nests, but I use it to make predictions about how cells work together to grow distinct tissue structures, in development or disease, by sensing their local environment and adapting their behaviour accordingly.
For instance, we study how cells decide when blood vessels should branch and move towards oxygen-hungry tissues, including tumours, and can use these insights to think about ways of improving the structure of the vasculature the delivery of cancer drugs. Another area of interest for us is the vasculature of the back of the eye and how dysregulated blood vessel growth can lead to blindness.
How will coming to the Crick affect the direction of your research?
At the Crick I plan to branch out and complement these interests with simulation studies of other adaptive cell systems including how vaccinia virus hijacks cell shape and behaviour to spread (in collaboration with Michael Way’s lab) and principles of collective cell migration across tissues and diseases (in collaboration with Jeremy Green and Claudia Linker at King’s College London).
By modelling cells with simulations, unexpected behaviours emerge that help us to direct experimental research in uncharted directions. These can reveal fundamental biological mechanisms, which could pave the way for new therapies.
What have been your first impressions of the Crick?
Everything’s been brilliant so far! There’s a really lovely community feel, and it’s been great reconnecting with old colleagues from my LRI days – many of whom are in group leader positions here or have moved from the lab bench into interesting administrative roles.
Having science ‘hubs’ on each floor is a fantastic initiative and really helps us streamline our work. The team in my local hub have been instrumental in helping me set up my lab as have my supportive, lively and friendly fellow scientists who’ve helped me quickly feel at home!
What are the biggest challenges?
I’ve got a six-year contract at the Crick and then I’ll be moving to the Department of Informatics at King’s College London for the following six years. I’ve already started my teaching commitments there, so it’s been a little tricky setting up my lab here at the same time. But I’m hoping that things will be a little easier to juggle once I’ve finished recruiting my team.
What are you most excited about?
It’s amazing having such a diverse mix of experts under one roof and I’m really looking forward to collaborating with them on a range of projects.
I have a preliminary project underway teaming up with Lucy Collinson, who leads our Electron Microscopy STP, to capture high-resolution images of abnormal blood vessels in mouse models of retinopathy. These will help us better calibrate our therapeutic simulations.
I’m also excited to help build a more reliable, reusable and accessible way to integrate simulations with biology long term, working with software engineers at King’s College London. In fact we are interviewing for our first PhD student focusing on this at the Crick this year!
What job would you be doing in an alternative universe?
I’ve always been really into art – in fact, I almost applied to art school instead of doing a maths degree. I still paint in my spare time, and occasionally get the odd commission from family and friends. But earning a living being an artist would be pretty awesome (in an alternate universe where that’s feasible)!