A coffee with...

Published on September 26th, 2013 | by Stephanie

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Miles Davenport

Position: Professor, UNSW Medicine.

How do you introduce yourself at parties?
I tell people I work on vaccines for HIV and malaria. Then I explain that actually no, I don’t inject people with things, I analyse and model data from vaccine trials in humans and animals [amongst other things], and head a group of mathematicians and physicists who work together to understand infection dynamics.

Why mathematics?
My interest is in how to prevent the major infectious diseases of the developing world. I started in clinical medicine, did my PhD in experimental immunology, and now work in mathematical biology. I use maths in my work because it is a major neglected area in understanding infection and immunity. As we get more and more sophisticated experimental tools, we often are still left with the outcome ‘patient infected / patient not infected’. Mathematics allows us to drill down into the mechanisms of this. We work closely with experimental biologists to plan experiments and analyse experimental data. We bring to the table a mathematical and statistical perspective on infection; Why did the vaccine fail? Did it reduce virus growth? Increase virus clearance? Did the virus evolve to avoid immune recognition? Having mathematical tools to tackle these questions allows a completely different insight.

Do you think that mathematicians deserve the “geek” tag?
What’s a geek? Someone who likes to think about complex problems and thinks that’s fun? Then yes, my group is full of geeks. I love nothing better than working through a problem on the whiteboard with a few members of my team. However, if a geek is someone that gets lost on the trivial detail of a mathematical [or computational] analysis, then I feel we do the opposite. We are very tied to the experimental data, and how to use it to understand and hopefully cure infection.

How do you use maths in your work?
We analyse and model complex datasets to try to gain insights into the underlying biological mechanisms. These datasets may be the number of cells over time, amount of virus, number of mutations in a virus etc. We use techniques from mathematical modeling / statistics / probability / simulation – whatever it takes. The approach is very tailored to the dataset and question, so we are forever trying to adapt new mathematical approaches that suit the particular biological question.

Do you have a favourite application or theory of maths?   And if you do, why is it so?
My favourite recent project was modeling infection dynamics in malaria. We took a published dataset from a cohort of 200 people living in Kenya, who were treated with anti-malarials to cure malaria infection, and then monitored for 10 weeks. This was in an area of high malaria transmission, so by the end of 10 weeks, almost all the children and half the adults had been re-infected with malaria. We modeled the dynamics of infection, to show why the adults did better. We are about to submit our third manuscript on this, and it is a great example of how by applying maths to an existing dataset we can gain new insights into the mechanisms of infection and immunity.

On the other hand – maybe an HIV project on infection dynamics is just as interesting….

OK – all of our projects interest me, because they all increase our understanding of infection and immunity.

What has maths done for you lately?
What math has done for me lately is to keep me excited about the possibility that our work will one day contribute to curing the major infectious diseases of our time and eliminating the human suffering that accompanies them.

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