Meet the Fellows
Find out more about the MRC Fellows currently in our team.
Dr Yolanda Hill
MRC-funded UKRI Innovation Fellow
“Cardiac Positioning System (CPS) – An automated navigation system to guide catheter ablation therapy”
November 2017 – November 2020
I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Biology with Psychology at Queen Mary University of London in 2011. During a short course on in vivo research methods in biomedical science, I realised that whilst the use of animals in biomedical research has for many years provided an unrivalled method to model and understand human physiology, computational models now provide significant scope for research in this domain. As a result, I undertook my PhD in Computational Cardiac Electrophysiology at King’s College London. My research was focussed on utilising mathematical models of membrane potential to simulate the propagation of electrical activation waves across a 3D ventricular model. By establishing a post-myocardial infarction model, I was able to study the abnormal wave propagation around infarct scar tissue which causes potentially fatal arrhythmias. Using this model, I developed a strategy to improve the success rates of the ablation therapy by increasing the accuracy of locating optimal sites to ablate in order to treat an arrhythmia.
My fellowship project builds on my research interests and experience in computational cardiac modelling; developing novel strategies to improve the ablation therapy protocol, driving decisions to deliver treatment to the optimal site. Crucially however, the fellowship’s focus on skills development provides me with the opportunity to acquire skills in machine learning, software development, and commercialising research. This new set of skills not only contributes to the scope of my current project but will also be essential throughout my career. I will be working alongside Prof John Terry and Prof Jonathan Fieldsend at Exeter, Dr Glyn Thomas and his clinical team at the Bristol Heart Institute, and my industry partner Biosense Webster, a subsidiary of Johnson&Johnson. The Living Systems Institute at Exeter cultivates collaboration, an aspect of research that is critical to the success of high-impact multidisciplinary projects. For my work, I have access to the expertise of clinicians as well as mathematicians and computer scientists who all contribute pivotal ideas towards methodological choices.
To make the most out of the fantastic opportunities that holding an MRC fellowship at Exeter bestows, I think being driven to achieve is exceptionally important. A phenomenal range of opportunities are available whilst holding a fellowship position at Exeter, from collaborations and public engagement activities, through to commercialising research. All that is required is the candidate’s enthusiasm and vision to deliver an exceptionally exciting project and use the opportunity as a fantastic launch pad for their future career.
Dr Joana Viana
MRC-funded Rutherford Fund Fellow
“Genomic regulation of vertebrate development”
November 2017 – November 2020
My research interests are to investigate molecular regulation during vertebrate development and diseases of the brain. After completion of a Bachelor’s degree in Cell and Molecular Biology from Universidade Nova de Lisboa in 2011 and a Master’s degree in Neuroscience from King’s College London, I undertook a PhD in Epigenetics at the University of Exeter. The focus of my PhD was to study regulatory genomic changes associated with schizophrenia and in response to antipsychotic medications. During this time I used a number of cutting-edge methodologies and developed a wide skillset, including both diverse laboratory and bioinformatics techniques. My postdoctoral work at the University of Exeter Medical School focused on exploring the epigenomic mechanisms underlying mental health as part of the European Union-funded MATRICS project. I then did a secondment at the Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis, using mathematical modelling to investigate pattern formation in the vertebrate neural plate.
The main aim of my fellowship is to identify the genomic regions that play a crucial role during early vertebrate development. I will also partner with Eli Lilly to identify developmental genes as potential pharmaceutical targets for neurological disorders. Embryonic development is a highly vulnerable period; environmental insults during this time can cause epigenetic and gene expression abnormalities, potentially leading to disease. To this date, no study has determined the genome-wide regulatory landscape of individual cell populations during early vertebrate development. I will profile gene expression and epigenetic marks during early stages of the development of the zebrafish embryo. I will collaborate with Prof Jon Mill, Prof Steffen Scholpp and Dr Eduarda Santos, who are leading experts in the fields of Epigenetics, Vertebrate Development and Zebrafish Toxiology. In Exeter, I will be able to take advantage of the multimillion pound Aquatic Resources Centre and the most state-of the-art genomic and sequencing facilities. This fellowship will give me the opportunity to fulfil several of my scientific career objectives such as consolidating my partnership with industry, expanding my academic collaborative network and setting my career on a path to independence.
To be a successful fellowship applicant it is critical to be passionate about science and to not be afraid to take risks. You should know exactly what, why and how you are going to develop your fellowship. But most importantly, preparation is key.
Dr Kyle Wedgwood
MRC Skills Development Fellow
“Intercellular communication in pseudoislets: shaping the dynamics of insulin secretion”
July 2017 – June 2020
I completed my Bachelors in 2008, graduating in Mathematics, focussed primarily on statistics and pure mathematics. During this time, I had a summer job working in a local hospital, and developed an interest in the application of mathematical models in biology and medicine, and in particular, in the arena of neuroscience. As a result, I undertook a Masters in mathematical medicine and biology, then went on to complete a PhD at the University of Nottingham where I developed a framework to better understand the dynamic interactions between neurons, and how these could lead to synchronisation in these cells, since this underlies many functional roles of neural systems. After finishing my PhD in 2013, I successfully obtained an additional 2 years of funding from the EPSRC to extend these methods to spatially distributed neural networks. Then in 2015 I joined the Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis at the University of Exeter to apply my skills in modelling to real data from biological and medical systems.
My 3-year MRC Skills Development Fellowship investigates how networks of human pancreatic beta cells work together to secrete. Loss of function of these networks ultimately gives rise to diabetes, and thus understanding how the cells operate is key to improving understanding and treatment of this disease. Using experimental protocols including patch clamp electrophysiology, fluorescence and two-photon microscopy, I will characterise the electrical properties of beta cells in isolation and in networks, and will use this data to construct a mathematical model of the overall network behaviour. These skills will be developed through support from my experimental sponsors (Prof Andrew Randall, Dr Leslie Satin, electrophysiology and Prof Noel Morgan, endocrinology). Following the initial characterisation of the cells, mathematical modelling (supported by Prof Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova – a leading mathematician with an interest in hormone dynamics) will be used to elucidate the mechanisms by which the network architecture shapes insulin secretion.
Developing experimental skills to support my theoretical research has given me a clearer focus on how the two complement each other. I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity with the Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis to pursue this, in an environment which brings together researchers from many different fields and promotes an inquisitive nature and continued learning throughout. In my time at Exeter I have benefitted greatly, not only from training in new skills areas, but also though mentorship and the career development support that has enabled me to secure this fellowship. I look forward to continuing to work with the Centre and to welcome enthusiastic new members to our team!
Dr Wessel Woldman
MRC Skills Development Fellow
“Revealing the dynamic mechanisms of seizures: An integrated mathematical and clinical approach”
June 2016 – May 2019
After completing my Bachelor Applied Mathematics at the University of Twente, Netherlands, I combined a Master Applied Mathematics and a Master Philosophy of Science, Technology and Society. Completing two masters simultaneously was highly challenging at times, but also very rewarding. It allowed me to explore my interests in neuroscience from both a mathematical and a more ethical/philosophical standpoint – considering the ethical implications of deep brain stimulation, in particular. I felt I could make the most concrete contributions in the field of computational neuroscience as a mathematician, and decided to undertake a PhD in mathematics researching epilepsy at the University of Exeter under the supervision of Prof John Terry.
Though I come from a quantitative background, I have become really passionate about working on clinical and biomedical problems, trying to discern how mathematics can be applied optimally to reveal new insights and finding ways to support clinical and medical practice in as far as that is possible. My MRC Skills Development Fellowship allows me to do exactly this: it enables me to work on the clinical problem of diagnosis of epilepsy. The University of Exeter is the perfect place for me to do so, because of the strong research centres aimed at tackling complex biomedical problems, excellent facilities and expertise on computational modelling of epilepsy and seizures. My fellowship will aid me further as I am sponsored by two world-leading neurologists (Prof Mark Richardson at King’s College London, and Prof Mark Cook at University of Melbourne) in their clinical environments and research groups. By learning and developing news skills from a clinical (data-collection/processing) as well as a mathematical perspective (parameter inference, uncertainty quantification), I will be in an excellent position to address research questions regarding the network properties of people with epileptic seizures.
If you come from a more theoretical background and want to work on clinical or biomedical problems through setting up collaborations with researchers from another discipline, I strongly advise you to spend a significant amount of time with people from that other field. Visit their universities, labs, clinics, conferences or workshops; talk to them, ask them seemingly ‘naive’ questions; make sure you understand what it is they do and what they want to achieve. You need to understand the questions they’re trying to solve and the ‘language’ they use to do so, their ‘focus’, and – most importantly – how something that you will develop will be of value to them.
Dr Eder Zavala
MRC Skills Development Fellow
“Characterising the feedback control mechanisms of the glucocorticoid receptor within the adrenal steroidogenic regulatory network”
July 2017 – June 2020
I’m a physicist with a great passion for mathematical biology and biomedicine. My research interests revolve around modelling signalling pathways and gene regulatory networks, and about how the architecture of these networks affects their dynamics and robustness against noise. During my MSc in Engineering and Biomedical Physics I developed ODE models of self-regulated gene circuits, exploring how negative and positive feedback loops affect bacterial phenotypes. While doing my PhD in Molecular Biomedicine, I developed a DDE model of a somitogenic regulatory network that considered the interactions between antagonistic gradients and genetic clocks that embryonic cells use as spatiotemporal cues to achieve robust, irreversible commitment to a somitic fate. Later, while in Japan, I investigated non-classic stochastic effects in gene expression and used advanced computational tools to simulate these processes at the singlegene level. I also performed spatial stochastic simulations of asymmetric protein segregation in yeast and developed a Delayed Stochastic Simulation Algorithm with cell division (DSSAcd) to explore cell cycle effects in feedback-regulated gene circuits.
It was in Exeter that I became fascinated by the dynamic regulation of stress hormones and by developing a mathematical understanding of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. The need of experimental skills to inform my mathematical models and test their predictions motivated me to apply for an MRC Skills Development Fellowship. This was awarded in 2017 to model the mechanisms controlling the synthesis of stress hormones during physiological and pathological scenarios. My project is being developed in collaboration with Prof Stafford Lightman (FRS) at the University of Bristol, and with Prof Gordon Hager at the NIH in the United States, and my long-term goal is to combine multiscale mathematical models with experimental techniques to understand the dynamic regulation of the stress response and its disruption during disease.
Being an MRC Fellow is a fantastic opportunity that also involves a great deal of responsibility and commitment. I believe that choosing a research problem you’re passionate about and finding the right support network is key for succeeding through all the stages of the application process, but also for the fellowship to become a truly rewarding and career-changing experience. Within the Centre for Predictive Modelling in Healthcare and Centre for Biomedical Modelling and Analysis at Exeter, I have found that unique combination of an interdisciplinary research network, good career development support, and the stimulating environment necessary for professional success.