Friday, 22 November 2013

A brief history of the WCMB

In this post the Director of the WCMB, Prof. Philip Maini, discusses the history of the Centre and how we got to where we are today.

Prof. Philip Maini, Director of the WCMB

The Centre for Mathematical Biology (CMB) was founded in 1983 by Prof. James D. Murray FRS (its first Director), who received a grant from the Science and Engineering Research Council (the precursor to EPSRC and BBSRC) to foster within the UK the new interdisciplinary area of mathematical biology. When first founded, the CMB consisted of Prof. Murray, two graduate students, a postdoc and a secretary. It was originally housed in the 3rd floor of the main Mathematical Institute building at 24-29 St Giles’, but moved to 41 St Giles’ (now part of the Faculty of Theology and Religionas it grew with the influx of many visitors. Those were exciting times – if Prof. Murray met someone interesting at a conference, he could invite them to the CMB. Virtually everybody who was anybody in mathematical biology visited the CMB (remember, it was a small subject back then). As a result, many new collaborations were initiated. 41 St Giles’ is a lovely old house and the common room had full length doors leading directly to a beautiful garden.

Around 1987 the CMB moved to the Wolfson Building on Keble Road, home of the Computing Laboratory (since renamed the Department of Computer Science), and was steadily growing with more graduate students and postdocs. In 1990, Prof. Murray went on leave and I was appointed as a UL in Mathematical Biology. In 1992, Prof. Murray resigned and moved permanently to the University of Washington in Seattle. I moved to 24-29 St Giles’ and the CMB was on two sites. The rest of the group later moved to 24-29 St Giles’ and that is where we stayed until 1999, when we moved to the Mathematical Institute annex at Dartington House (2nd floor). In 2005 we moved to the 1st Floor and, with great support from the then Head of Department, Prof. Nick Woodhouse, and Head of Division, Prof. David Clary FRS, the Statutory Professorship in Mathematical Biology was created - after 22 years, at last the CMB had more than one faculty member! Dr Eamonn Gaffney took over my University Lectureship. We also secured an RCUK Fellowship, which was awarded to a young graduate student called Ruth Baker, who subsequently became the third faculty member of the CMB.

Left: Dartington House. Right: Mathematical biology in action at the CMB circa 2008.

In 2007 we secured funding from the Wolfson Foundation and with that the CMB would change its name to Wolfson CMB. This took longer than expected due to delays in the new building project, so it was six years later that we moved in, just before the beginning of the present term (and well before the building was finished). By this time, Royal Society University Research Fellow Dr Radek Erban had joined us fully and Dr Derek Moulton had been appointed University Lecturer in Mathematical Biology, so that now the WCMB has five faculty members.

Mathematical biology in action at the WCMB today.

We are now 30 years old and, like most 30 year-olds, we have had our good times and our bad times. It took the subject a long time to gain acceptance and at times there were quite a few challenges. For example, shortly after I arrived back from the University of Utah (then probably the best place in the world for mathematical biology, with a large and very strong research group) to take up my University Lectureship, it was proposed that the CMB should cease to exist – an interesting welcome to a new job and an indication of the battles that would lie ahead. Luckily, the Department threw out this proposal and the CMB was reprieved. We have a few scars but we have come through and now the subject, like the WCMB, is well established. Much of this is due to the success of the Doctoral Training Centres and the work of Prof. David Gavaghan, which has resulted in many new graduate students and allowed the WCMB to significantly increase its collaborations with experimental groups. There are still challenges ahead but we will continue to push forward with our twin aims of generating new biology and new mathematics.

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