In July’s blog post, we feature an interview with Dr. Carina Dunlop, Senior Lecturer of Mathematics, University of Surrey.

Carina Dunlop

Still working in fluids!

When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?

I have pretty much always been fascinated by the applied side of mathematics. In particular, the way that across a range of applications mathematics can generate significant insights into real-world problems. However, until my first postdoctoral position I mostly focused on physical applied modelling and industrial applications. In fact, my doctoral work concerned problems in fluid jets. It was during my PhD in Oxford that I made many friends in the Centre for Mathematical Biology (CMB), went to seminars, and generally hung out with the other students and postdocs there. I was fascinated by what was going on and was excited to see mathematics being taken into new and diverse fields where the correct models and even the correct modelling approaches were not even known. I decided to move into mathematical biology following my PhD, staying in Oxford for a postdoc in cancer modelling before moving to Heidelberg, Germany.

Was the decision to do a Ph.D. an obvious and easy choice?

Simple answer - yes! I tried to make myself take the job market seriously, doing the obligatory trip to the careers service and going to talks from employers. The truth was, however, that I just knew I wasn’t done with maths yet – I still wanted to learn more, try more things, do more (and still do). I think it also really helped that I was studying somewhere with a large, active and visible PhD community which made it seem like a more normative and possible route to take.

How did you come to run your own group?

I’m wary of answering this one as I think everyone has their own route through their career and I don’t want reenforce the idea that there is a standard. However, for me, important things were to develop my own vision for my research programme and what I wanted to achieve. Spending time in a different country working with a very different research community really helped with this as it broadened my perspectives. However, of course, there was also persistence and luck in finding the right position in the right place, particularly in solving the classic two-body problem of academia that so many of us face.

What are your main research questions and why are they interesting?

I think that what has always interested me in mathematical biology is thinking of cells and tissues as physical materials, which, however, unlike water or rubber, are active and dynamically changing. One of the light bulb moments early on was reading the work from Dennis Discher’s lab from University of Pennsylvania, showing how stem cells (which generate the other types of cells in the body) would even change their target cell type based on the stiffness of their surroundings. Since then, it seems like every possible cellular behaviour is being found to be influenced by mechanical forces. This basic fascination has led my research to focus on using mathematics to understand the role that these mechanical and physical interactions between cells and their environments play in biology. This can be how forces can influence cell signalling or how mechanics changes tissue structure and development.

Working in this field requires two perspectives to be developed hand-in-hand. Firstly, there is a need to develop new mathematical models and methodologies that are fit-for-purpose. In particular, integrating with the advances in experimental biophysics that mean we can now image cells and tissues at incredible resolutions and physically interrogate them in a range of ways. A key element in this regard is bringing together physical models that describe cellular mechanics with models of active cellular behaviours. However, a model is only as good as its application and a huge part of my enjoyment comes from working closely with collaborators engaging with their data and their research challenges.

What is a typical work day/week like?

I am certain that every blog post will say the same thing at this point, that there is no ‘typical’ day or week. But I suspect that is one of the things that we all love about our job. However, a ‘typical’ week would include a rather squeezed mix of personal research, meetings, supervising and mentoring, teaching undergraduates and general administrative tasks. Each role and task is rewarding in a different way (well not the admin in the main!). It would be good, however, if there were slightly more hours in every week.

Do you have any advice for someone considering a career in mathematical biology?

Go for it! With a caveat - mathematical biology is hugely rewarding, fascinating and great fun IF you are truly interested in and willing to engage with the biology and enjoy working collaboratively. If you are then there are just the most amazing opportunities to do fun and interesting things no matter what type of mathematics is your thing. Also look to work with people you get on with as it just makes everything that bit easier.

What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?

Well ‘the girls’’ Disney subscription just happens to have kept me supplied with enough Marvel shows/films for a bit! As I am sure we all feel, however, particularly with children, spare time is tight. Whatever there is we though we fill with board games, reading, getting outdoors walking/exploring, and as much sports/exercise as time allows.

Carina Dunlop with students

One of the best days – celebrating a PhD success (well done to Josephine Solowiej-Wedderburn)