I enjoy the challenge of trying to find the best way to explain new concepts to people as well as passing on my enthusiasm for the subject.
How would you summarise your research to undergraduate students?
As a blast and a half? Less frivolously, I apply mathematical ideas to the Life Sciences, mainly developing models of what happens inside living cells. I have also worked on analysing DNA sequences to understand the evolution of HIV and to guide development of vaccines.
How would you summarise your research to postgraduate students?
I collaborate closely with experimental groups to develop ODE and Markov-process models of biochemical reaction networks and other cellular and biophysical processes. I am interested in essentially all aspects of the associated mathematical problems, from dynamics through to the surprisingly subtle and interesting statistical problems associated with fitting parameters and on to the beautiful algebraic structure of some of the systems of ODEs. I have also worked on molecular evolution, which is essentially an optimisation problem over a combinatorially vast forest of potential evolutionary trees.
What do you think makes the School distinctive?
One obvious answer is our size: with so many different kinds of Maths being done in the School, a Manchester student gets a much better picture of what the subject is really about. But speaking as a person who works here, perhaps the best thing about the School is something that’s probably almost invisible to students, though I suspect they benefit from it indirectly: the School has an excellent atmosphere and people here treat each other kindly and with respect. Even when we disagree—which one has to expect when 70 or so bright, committed, critical thinkers try to work together—we treat each other well and argue fairly. I like to think that this same culture of mutual respect operates in our lecture theatres and informs all our dealings with students.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
I like nearly all parts of it, save those to do with examinations: meeting students in small-group lessons, writing and giving lectures, designing interesting and instructive problem sets, supervising project students one-on-one … all these things are just excellent and I’d hate to give up any of them. Writing and marking exams, on the other hand, is a misery second only to having to sit the wretched things.
How do you make your teaching up-to-date, innovative and inspirational?
I talk to my students to see what they respond to, but I also keep reading and thinking about the stuff myself. Every year when I pull out my notes to get ready for the lecturing season I think “Ah! This again. I love this stuff.” When I stop feeling that way I’ll move onto something new.
How long have you been at the School and what keeps you there?
I came to UMIST, one of the two predecessors of Manchester University, in the mid 90’s, mainly to work with my friend and mentor Dave Broomhead. I’ve stayed because of the friendly, collegial spirit in the School and the fruitful and interesting collaborations I’ve forged across the wider University. Also, I love being so close to the Peaks, the Lakes and North Wales, along with Manchester’s wonderfully rich music scene.
How do you think students remember you?
I try not to dwell on it too much—what the students think of me is their own business and not for me to pry into—but I hope they remember me as an enthusiastic lecturer who loves his subject.
What kind of balance do you strike between teaching facts and developing skills?
I think this is a false opposition. Science and mathematics develop because people are trying to understand something and to tell a coherent story about it. A good Maths course should help students become skilled—confident, precise, fluent, even stylish—mathematical storytellers. With that goal in mind, facts aren’t interesting unless one can deploy them skilfully and skills aren’t much use without a substantial body of examples—which I guess is what the question means by “facts”—on which to exercise them.
How does research feed into the syllabus?
In the modules I currently teach—aimed at 2nd and 3rd year students—it feeds in more-or-less directly. Pretty much every year so far I’ve learned something through my research that showed me a way to improve my lectures.
How do you make sure the course meets the needs of industry and business?
So far, I haven’t worried very much about this. I feel that if students develop into clear, rigorous thinkers and learn to express their understanding effectively, then they’ll be well-equipped for whatever their subsequent careers may ask of them. But in the last year or so I’ve been involved in the development of a soon-to-be-launched MSc in Data Science, which will be a cross-faculty enterprise with input from, among others, Computer Science, Social Statistics and the Business School. The MSc will have a strong focus on direct applicability and I’m sure the things I learn there will spill over into my work for the School.
What is the course highlight for you?
Project work. Students on the MMath are required to do a fourth-year project that accounts for a quarter of the work in their final year, but 3rd year students can do projects too and it’s an excellent thing in many ways: students get to explore a topic deeply, and in directions of their own choosing; they prepare a long piece of writing and so get practice in an important skill that conventional, exam-based courses don’t develop; also, they get to know a member of staff well and so can get better-informed and more-effective letters of reference.
What are you doing to improve NSS scores?
Mainly I’m listening to students and trying to understand what we do that works well so as to build on our successes.
Why do graduates from your course stand out in the job market?
I’m not sure whether they do—how would we find that out? I hope that our students leave with a solid sense of what it feels like to understand something thoroughly: the ability to judge an argument independently is perhaps the deepest and most generally useful skill that a Maths degree has to offer.
What kind of industry relations do you have? How do students benefit from them?
The University sector is the only industry in which I have really extensive contacts and these sometimes help students get onto the MSc or PhD programmes that are right for them, but I expect to be developing wider industrial links through my work on the University’s soon-to-be-launched Data Science MSc and intend to transfer the examples and problems I find there directly into the courses I teach.
What distinguishes this course from similar ones in other institutions?
The size and excellence of the School and the associated breadth and depth of the Mathematics available here; the School’s home in the beautiful Alan Turing Building and, finally, the brilliant city of Manchester.