Meet our Winter School 2016 Speakers: Professor James Sneyd

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We caught up with Professor James Sneyd from the University of Auckland, who is lecturing the ‘The Dynamics of Calcium: The Interaction of Modelling and Experiments’ course during Week 1 of the upcoming AMSI Winter School 2016.

We asked James about his research, his interests, and got some advice…

1) What are the most interesting “big questions” in your field?

In the overall field of Mathematical Physiology, the biggest generic question is how to construct multiscale models in a way that is useful and predictive. It’s very difficult indeed to stick different space and time scales together, while also trying to remain true to the data you have and then to make testable predictions. Lots of different groups are taking different approaches, from the reductive to the “include everything”, but there remain few examples of truly multiscale models (in physiology at least) having a significant influence on experimental approaches.

In my own research area, that of calcium dynamics, the big questions are not mathematical. What causes the oscillations? Why are they there? What do they do? What controls the period? These are questions that can be studied by either experimentalists or modellers, but are ideally studied by interdisciplinary combinations of both. There isn’t really any new math, but that is not the point of being a mathematical physiologist.

2) What kind of research problems are you interested in?

Well, not mathematical ones, that’s for sure. In that sense I’m a very atypical mathematician. I simply don’t care about mathematical rigor, or proving theorems, or deriving new mathematical results. I want to know how the body works. How cells work. How we think, see, move, etc. How does the intricate biochemistry of a cell control cellular function? Can we use our understanding of cellular networks to understand diseases, maybe even cure them? These are the things I care about.

People have often said to me that, if this is what interests me, why do math at all? Well, math is just one tool of many that can be used to study these questions. It’s like a confocal microscope; it can’t do everything, but when you need a confocal you can’t make do with a gene sequencer. Similarly, when you want to understand a problem on a detailed quantitative level, you need math to do this. As a tool, it’s vital. And doing math, which is easy, is a whole lot more fun than doing experiments, which are messy, slow and difficult.

3) What are some other areas of your field that are particularly interesting to you?

Well, in mathematical physiology, just about any problem in biophysical neuroscience, biochemical kinetics, cell signaling, that kind of thing. More generally, I’m fascinated by the emergence of order. Self-organised emergence of pattern and structure lies at the heart of how we are constructed, and how we operate, but is such a very difficult thing to understand. We don’t even understand it very well in colonies of honey bees, or termites, and there the individual rules are (perhaps) easier to investigate. But in the context of a billion neurons, how can we possibly understand the emergence of order and pattern from an ensemble like that? Or the development of any embryo. Or the control of the cell cycle and its relationship to cancer. I have no idea, and I’ll certainly never find out, but one can’t help but wonder.

Spatial patterns such as spiral waves, and temporal patterns such as oscillations, are simpler manifestations of this overall development of order via self-organisation, and so much of my life I have spent studying these simpler patterns, both in single cells and in groups of cells.

4) Why did you become a mathematician/statistician?

Many people would argue I’m not one, or at least not a ‘real’ one. However, I know pretty much the exact moment I decided to do math rather than go to Medical School. It was a first-year undergraduate lecture on tangent planes to surfaces. I suddenly understood it. I suddenly realised that this math stuff was actually cool. I remember having a moment of insight that I didn’t have to go to Medical School. I could keep on doing this stuff. I didn’t have to go and cut up dead bodies. It was liberating, but also a bit scary.

Mind you, my uncle (Alfred Sneyd) was already a mathematician (at the University of Waikato) and I thought he was super cool. So, I guess I always knew that it was possible to do math, but it took me some time to actually KNOW it.

5) Biggest career success?

Goodness, I don’t know. I wouldn’t claim to have had any big career success, to be honest. I go on going on, so to speak. My book with Jim Keener (Mathematical Physiology) is popular and used all around the world, but it’s not research. It’s simply a lot of writing, a lot of compiling. My work on calcium dynamics is reasonably well known in certain circles, and it’s the stuff I love the most, but I’ll never win a Nobel Prize for it. So, typical career success, but nothing spectacular. But that’s OK. There’s a lot more to life.

6) Do you have any advice for future researchers?

Yes, but its perhaps not politically correct…

The secret to success lies not in doing good math, or good science. This is necessary (mostly), but certainly not sufficient. You need to write well and easily, and you need to give good talks. Your work might be of the utmost brilliance, but if nobody can read your papers, and if everybody goes to sleep during your talks, well, nobody will ever care about it. Of course, this isn’t 100% true. If you win a Nobel Prize, you can be as boring as you like. But for ordinary mortals, writing badly and speaking badly is the kiss of career death.

This sounds ridiculously superficial, but it’s not really. It’s all about communication. If you can’t communicate what you do, you simply won’t be noticed. And thus it’s very important to work on your communication skills. You need a good story, of course, but you need to tell it well. So, practice your writing. Practice your speaking. And if you have any time left over, maybe do a tiny bit of science. OK, fine, that was a joke, but my point remains.


To hear more from Professor Sneyd, register for the AMSI Winter School 2016 at the University of Queensland between 4-15 July 2016. For more information, please visit


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