Dr. Pom Lands in Oz

Actually I landed here 5 months ago, in September 2013. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for long enough. Almost a year ago exactly I landed a job at the University of Sydney, who were advertising computational biology fellowships as part of a new interdisciplinary centre being established to tackle the rise of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I got married to my long-time partner a week before we flew out here, and we went about starting a new life in an exciting foreign land. 

Arriving here, my position is not what I expected, but in a good way. The interdisciplinary centre (the Charles Perkins Centre, see image) is a tremendously forward thinking and ambitious project to bring together disparate departments and skillsets across the university. They have promoted a banner of addressing the rise of the aforementioned diseases, but really the centre is aiming far wider than that. How wide this scope is changes by the week, even now; truly this is a university-wide endeavour. Understandably there’s a lot of excitement about what could be accomplished on the wings of fast-evolving interactions across faculties and a $250 million investment. My job? Well a job spec was not really available upon my arrival, which is unusual – in my experience the money for a research position arrives only after someone has clearly laid out what the problem is and how it will be addressed. In fact, my job is to build collaborations; to meet people from anywhere in the university (and outside) and assess whether providing a computational angle in analysing systems can be of benefit. In the context of a university rediscovering itself (I have heard numerous stories of researchers who launch collaborations with one another at conferences in far off exotic places, when their offices are in adjacent university buildings!) this makes complete sense, myself and the other computational modellers are to provide the “glue” between disciplines that can launch novel new research. In truth, no one knows exactly how far the new centre can go in advancing research, so there’s a lot of excitement. But there’s no doubt that what is being done here is of world class novelty.

I am largely free to write my own job spec, which is a unique and rewarding opportunity. It doesnt take long, however, before your available time (and then some) is completely occupied. I could do with staff! So we begin searching for students. But there are three big projects I’m working on at the moment. I’m continuing the modelling of immunology, building a hybrid spatially-explicit simulation to elucidate the signalling mechanisms responsible for the swarming behaviour observed in neutrophils responding to inflammation. I’ve also branched into modelling the gut microbial community. There’s growing compelling evidence that the bacteria occupying one’s bowels have a huge influence on health. The interactions between these bacteria and the immune system are largely uncharacterised at present, but we know there’s a lot of it. And I’m continuing my research on automated calibration of simulations. I still see this as an essential technology: there are so many biological parameters that are unknown, an efficient technology to identify them in simulation can provide worlds of useful information. It can do more, phrasing a calibration question differently – “find me parameters that will make this simulation of disease healthy instead” – could point to interesting new intervention strategies.

Posts following this one will elaborate on each of these projects as they mature. For the meantime I’m “stoked” to have landed such a fantastic and varied job in one of the world’s most impressive cities. I’m writing this on an airplane returning from my first Australian conference. Its been everything I hoped for: I’ve met lots of really friendly people, have got some promising leads, and am enthused to have discovered a vibrant immunology community here in Australia.