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By January 1, 2021April 28th, 2021EXIST

Professor John Terry, is a Professor of Biomedical Modelling, Director of the EPSRC Centre for Predictive Modelling in Healthcare and Co-Director of the Wellcome Trust funded Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis.

Professor Terry’s research is focussed on the development and application of mathematical and computational methodologies for understanding the dynamics of biomedical systems, with particular interests in the transitions between healthy and diseased states in the human brain and also in the dynamics of endocrine systems. Since 2003 John has supervised the research training and development of thirty individuals, including twelve PhD students.

Graduating in Mathematics in 1997, John studied for a PhD in Applied Mathematics. Following postdoctoral positions he was appointed Lecturer in Mathematical Sciences at Loughborough University in 2002. From 2006–2010, he rose from Lecturer to Reader within the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol.  A Readership in Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield in 2010 followed before joining the University of Exeter in 2012. 

John is now part of the University of Exeter’s new Living Systems Institute (LSI) , which will pioneer novel approaches to understanding diseases and how they can be better diagnosed. The LSI enables the physical colocation of scientists with very broad skills, and the provision of high-specification technologies. 

Insight caught up with John, to find out more about his work.

What’s your current research focus?

I have two main areas of research focus, which I am seeking to combine into one. The first revolves around epilepsy – a serious neurological condition that affects around 1% of the UK population. The second involves the human stress response, which is regulated by a neuroendocrine system that governs the secretion of the hormone cortisol. Both systems are highly dynamic and so mathematics has an important role to play. Intriguingly the most common cause of the seizures that people with epilepsy quote is stress and stressful situations, so by combining these two areas we may be able to make new breakthroughs in our understanding.  Building on this research we are currently working towards establishing a spin-out company that will provide a diagnostic service for neurologists. We will be taking part in the final of a ‘shark tank’ competition in mid-May (the equivalent of Dragons’ Den in the USA) that would fund us to start this spin-out.

How did you move into biomedical modelling?  Was this a deliberate decision?

I’m not sure it was entirely deliberate, more a sequence of events. I was just completing my PhD back in 2000 and on the day of departure, an Australian arrived to spend some time with my PhD supervisor. He was a psychiatrist interested in mathematical modelling and cricket – something we both had in common! We stayed in touch and I was lucky enough to receive a Royal Society travel award to start a collaboration which focused on the use of mathematical algorithms to understand how different regions of the brain communicate. It all kind of went from there.

As a Professor with a large research group, how do you maintain a personal research focus – how do you make sure you fit in this time?

It’s important that you find time to keep up to date and exposed to new ideas. In fact, I’ve just returned from a week-long visit to Porto Alegre in Brazil, where we spent time in an epilepsy surgery unit. Observing surgery in person, and understanding how the surgeons were using the data they had collected to make decisions about which region of the brain they would operate on, gave me a wealth of new ideas, as well as redoubling my focus to make a difference to people with this debilitating condition. Mathematical models offer an important additional source of information about which regions of the brain are implicated in seizure generation and thus should be targets for surgery.


How many mathematicians are there at Exeter?  How many work in pure maths, and how many in applied?  What other groups do they link up with?

The department has grown significantly in the past few years and there’s now around 60 academics (from lecturers through to professors). We are a very applied focused discipline (around 50 of our staff face applications areas). We have strong groups in climate science, statistics, systems biology and medicine, and geophysical and astrophysical fluids. We also have growing expertise in the mathematics of big data, which is becoming increasingly important in almost every application area.

What are the current ‘hot topics’ in Maths at Exeter?

I’m enthusiastic about all mathematics, so everything’s “hot” to me. I guess if I had to make a choice of four they would be climate modelling and climate change, quantifying risk and uncertainty, algorithms for big data, and healthcare technologies and the diagnosis of disease. All areas for which collaborations beyond academia, such as with industry, are essential.

How do mathematicians contribute to the Living Systems Institute?

Mathematicians have a critical role to play in an institute such as Living Systems. Mathematics effectively underpins everything we do. From the algorithms that enable us to make sense of the images we record from single cells or from whole organs (like the brain), through to the models needed to make predictions that we can test biologically. As our ability to observe and to manipulate biological systems has grown exponentially, mathematics based predictions are becoming increasingly important to guide our choice of experiments.

How do you start an interdisciplinary project?

To me it’s all about the 3 Es: Energy, Enthusiasm and Engagement. In the early stages, it’s critical that you spend a lot of time sat around a table, often in mutual ignorance, as you try and build an understanding. During this period, it can be really easy to get frustrated or to become disengaged, so it’s really important that you bring positive energy and enthusiasm for the research project in hand. It’s also essential that everyone in the collaboration respects and values the contributions that each member of the team brings. We are increasingly seeing that to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing us in this Century, we can only make progress by bringing together people with deep expertise from different disciplines and help them to interact and think in new ways.

In this, our Exeter City of Maths issue, we want to know how people’s interest is sparked in STEMM subjects – why did you decide to study maths?

I guess it goes back to schooldays. Mrs Farley – my mathematics teacher – noted in my school report when I was 14: “With some effort John should be able to get a GCSE, however I strongly advise against him continuing any further”. From that point on I was determined to prove myself as a mathematician. I’m still trying now!