Research visit to Japan

Today I head to Japan to visit Professor Natotake Ogaswara, Professor Shigehiko Kanaya, Dr Taku Oshima and Dr Hiroki Takahashi at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology. We will be embarking on collaborative research carrying out experiments and building mathematical models of gene regulation in pathogenic E. coli species. This is funded jointly by the BBSRC and the JST.

Non-confidential details of outcomes will follow.

Teaching maths to biologists – report from HE Academy event

Yesterday I attended an event at the University of Reading run by the Bioscience centre of the Higher Education Academy. At that event, I heard talks from or had informal discussions with academics teaching mathematics to biology undergraduates / postgraduates at a number of institutions, including Abertay, Anglia Ruskin, Bath, Cambridge, Cardiff, Liverpool and Reading. Very interesting key points to emerge that will help inform my maths teaching next year, especially to the first year undergraduates.

  1. All institutions are facing the same issues, regardless of ‘status’. Specifically:
    1. General recognition of the quite separate issues of teaching basic maths skills to all u/g biologists and the teaching of higher level skills to biologists to become involved in Systems Biology research.
    2. The skills required by all undergraduate biologists around units, concentrations, powers, logarithms, exponentials, basic algebra (manipulating equations) and basic numeracy (is the answer plausible).
    3. The range of background / abilities of students coming into university study. This is linked to a wide range of school experience, from students with no more maths teaching after a ‘C’ in GCSE maths through to students with an ‘A’ in A-level maths, and everything in between.
  2. The importance of gathering the right data and evidence. This includes:
    1. Information on background of students, including numbers of students with GCSE, AS and A2 maths, and grades of those students.
    2. Feedback on different elements of the teaching, specifically how helpful the students are finding lectures, practicals, worksheets, on-line materials and so forth.
    3. Formative assessment during the course of the term to identify students who are struggling with particular elements and direct (often limited) tutorial resource to those students.
  3. The importance of blended approaches, specifically:
    1. The findings from Liverpool that the students found workshops and tutorials far more valuable than the lectures: they had six 3 hour workshops AND sign-in tutorials
    2. The findings from Abertay that a system of regular on-line tests with extra tutorials if not meeting goals and electronic nagging massively improved results
    3. The use in Bath of on-line tests with 100% pass marks but many attempts allowed to improve learning of key concepts.
  4. Helpful ideas about approaches, three C’s from Anglia Ruskin:
    1. Context: very important to include biological context – embedding the mathematics in biological problems. Reading used the analogy of teaching people to make hammers and screwdrivers without telling them about nails and screws.
    2. Confidence: very important to build students’ confidence, even if this means giving very high marks (doesn’t matter as in most universities 1st year marks only count for progression).
    3. Continuity: need to link both with school-level work and with material in other 1st, 2ns and 3rd year modules: this is a challenge for all module leaders/lecturers.
  5. A large number of on-line resources, which I have not yet looked at, including:
    1. Bionrich
    2. Essential maths for medics and vets
    3. mathtutor
    4. NuMBers
    5. SUMS
    6. biomathtutor
    7. mathstore
    8. And, quite differently, StarLogo TNG

All-in-all, a highly successful and interesting day, very timely given by first-year teaching, and I look forward to embedding some of these ideas, practices and resources in next year’s running of the module.

Why we work for universities – Aristotle on Thales

This is my laboratory blog and I normally post updates on research from my group. However, these are unusual times, and the government seems to have a distorted view of what universities are for. So please indulge me in an academically rigorous critique of government policy by quoting from Aristotle on the first recorded Philosopher, Thales. It may be fair to refer to Thales as the founder of the great European (and now global) academic enterprise that goes back over 2500 years. As you will see, this quote is particularly pertinent to me, as a mathematics graduate, I had the opportunity to have a vastly better paid career through modern-day speculation in the world of banking.

“The story goes that when they found fault with him for his poverty, supposing that philosophy is useless, he learned from his astronomy that there would be a large crop of olives. Then, while it was still winter, he obtained a little money and made deposits on all the olive presses both in Miletus and Chios. Since no one bid against him, he rented them cheaply. When the right time came, suddenly many tried to get the presses all at once, and he rented them out on whatever terms he wished, and so made a great deal of money. In this way he proved that philosophers can easily be wealthy if they desire, but this is not what they are interested in.”

Aristotle, Politics 1259a9-18 – 11A10. From Cohen, S.M., Curd, P. and Reeve, C.D.C. 2005. Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy, 3rd Ed., Hackett Publishing Company Inc, Indianapolis.

New research presentation written

Today I’ve finished writing a new research presentation based on Dorota’s work. I’ve titled it “Deconstructing a Gene Regulatory Network” and it covers Dorota’s work on modelling the IncP1 RK2 plasmid in collaboration with Chris Thomas. The first part looks at our combining of differential equation models with statistical inference techniques and we get some nice results, including two sets of parameters that fit the data, and some experimentally testable hypotheses about what will happen when all regulation of the system is removed. In the second part, we try to ask ‘why’ the system has evolved to be the way it is, and compare various hypotheses in networks with decreasing levels of complexity (away from the real system). All this stuff is yet to be published so I’m being a bit cryptic on line! Most of the slides, of course, have come from Dorota, so credit to where it’s due.

If you’d like to come to the talk, I’ll be giving it for the first time at 1pm on Wednesday 17th November in the Medical School at University Park, Nottingham, and for the second time on Monday 22nd November at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Japan. Yup! I can’t wait till the trip 🙂