Case Study: Thomas Pak
Despite his high-school maths teacher advising him to study maths, Thomas decided to study Bioscience Engineering at KU Leuven in Belgium for his undergraduate degree. He always had a fascination for science, so he chose a degree that would allow him to explore many different disciplines. He continued this trend during his master's dual degree, where he studied Nanoscience, Nanotechnology and Nanoengineering at KU Leuven and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at National Chiao Tung University (NCTU) in Taiwan.
During this time, Thomas also participated in iGEM, an international synthetic biology competition, as part of the KU Leuven 2015 team. His main role was to develop a hybrid agent-based/continuum model for pattern-forming bacteria. He enjoyed modelling biological systems so much that he decided to make it his research focus. However, he realised he needed a more rigorous mathematical training before he could truly commit to this path. Thus, after admitting that his high-school teacher was right all along, he started a third master's degree in Mathematical Modelling and Scientific Computing at the Mathematical Institute (University of Oxford).
When he came to Oxford, Thomas was pleased to discover that mathematical biology is a major research area at the Mathematical Institute. He spent the next year learning the mathematical techniques and computing skills necessary to become an effective applied mathematician. For his Master's thesis, he modelled the collective migration of neural crest cells with partial differential equations (PDEs) under the supervision of Prof Philip Maini. During this time, he also became aware of the Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP. He was immediately attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the program, as well as its emphasis on cultivating professional skills.
During his first year in the DTP, Thomas had the opportunity to further his programming skills, learn new concepts in bioinformatics, and experience carrying out experiments in a bioscience lab. For his first rotation project, Thomas worked with Prof Radek Erban at the Mathematical Institute to develop a hybrid method for simulating stochastic intracellular processes. In his second rotation project, Thomas was supervised by Prof Ruth Baker and Dr Joe Pitt-Francis to develop a framework for automatically parallelising simulations for approximate Bayesian computation methods.
Thomas then chose to do his doctoral research with Prof Baker and Dr Pitt-Francis. The research objective is to model the processes of cell competition in multicellular organisms, which play an important role in development and cancer. A large portion of his time is spent coding up cell-based models in Chaste and running simulations to study their properties. At a later stage, Thomas will collaborate with experimentalists to validate his mathematical models and hopefully gain new insights into cell competition.
Besides doing research, Thomas also teaches and demonstrates for modules at the DTC. In addition, he sits on the expert board of the DTC Coding Dojo, where he has given masterclasses on the Linux terminal, LaTeX and Vim. He is also involved with the Rhodes Artificial Intelligence Lab, which is a student-led initiative that aims to use machine learning for positive social impact. In his free time, he enjoys working out at the Linacre gym, collecting medicinal plants, and partaking in the rich social life at Oxford.