Jonathan Brooks-Bartlett, PhD Student, Systems Biology Doctoral Training Centre

Name: Jonathan Brooks-Bartlett

Job Title: PhD Student, Systems Biology Doctoral Training Centre

Organisation: University of Oxford

Number of years in current position: 3

Qualifications: Master of Mathematics Degree from the University of Southampton

Explain what you do on an average day at work:
An average day at work usually consists of doing a bit of reading in some scientific research papers to see if I can get some good ideas about algorithms I want to use in my research. Once I have stumbled on some good material, I’ll see if I can write some code to implement the algorithm. Finally I’ll test it on some data and see if it works. More often than not, it doesn’t work as planned and I often have to make a few tweaks to make it work. Occasionally I also do experiments in the lab if I need to get some new data.

What do you like most about your job?
I really like being able to write maths that explains things that happen in real life. In particular, the modelling I’m doing will help people try and work out the structure of biological molecules inside the body.  The power to write maths to model things that occur in real life is amazing. This is what gets me up in the morning.

What stimulated your interest in maths, and when?
I was about 6 or 7 seven years old when my mum bought me a toy laptop that had several games on it such as hangman, remember several digits of numbers, mental arithmetic etc. I used to play on that for hours and try to get 10 out of 10 on the games. This is when my mathematical skills developed. At university I did topics that allowed me to try and model things like cooking a potato and working out how cars move in traffic. This really excited me about the potential of using maths to describe anything.

What influenced your career choice?
I wanted to apply maths to biological problems because I felt like I wanted to use my skills to improve health and wellbeing. But I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. The Systems Biology Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Oxford allowed me to study several different biological topics before I settled on the project I’m working on now – improving methods that allow people to work out the structure of biological molecules.

Which skills do you consider to be essential for your job?
• Self-motivation – You are in charge of your own work and progress so you’ll have to be motivated to get up on cold, rainy mornings to do the work. This is probably the most important “skill” to have. If you are motivated then you can develop the other skills.
• Creativity – You need to be able to think outside the box and try to piece different things together, some of which you may have learnt years ago and some you only just read 5 minutes ago.
• Time management – With a PhD you have very few deadlines but each deadline that you do have requires a lot of work to be done. So you have to manage your own time effectively to get the required amount of work done.
• Communication – You’ll have to present your work several times whether it be to huge audiences or to just your supervisor. Being able to communicate your work effectively is so important. If you can’t communicate well then it doesn’t matter how good your work is, it’ll be equivalent to not having done it.
• Team work – Depending on where you work you may have to collaborate with others so you’ll need to be able to work well in a team: share ideas, listen, and work together effectively.
• Perseverance – There will be times when work isn’t going so well. Don’t give up. It’ll work in the end. You just have to keep trying.
• Programming – In today’s world there is so much data that the maths requires a huge number of calculations. This just isn’t feasible with pen and paper. So you’ll need to be able to write code so the computers do the calculations for you.

Any advice you may have for other individuals considering your career path?
Do something because you love it! If you don’t love it then you won’t be motivated to do it and if you’re not motivated to do it then you won’t do it well at all. Try to work out exactly what it is that gets you excited. People often say that they like maths but maths is really broad and there are so many different parts to it. I personally like modelling real life things. I get a real joy when simulations work so this is my motivation. And maths allows me to do that.

Your future career plans?
I would like to take the skills I’ve learned in my research and also apply them to machine learning/artificial intelligence. I think these are really exciting areas and the current explosion in technological advances is allowing us to create and apply new algorithms. I think there is much more to learn in these disciplines that could help people in their everyday lives and I would love to be a part of it.