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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Thomas Ezard

13 Apr, 2015

Dr Thomas EzardDr Thomas Ezard is a NERC Advanced Research Fellow and holds a Wellcome Trust Investigator award. Based at the University of Southampton, his research looks at the way events such as wars, outbreaks of disease, and legislation affect the growth of populations. Here he shares his desire to advance the use of evidence-based policy, and tells us how stand-up comedy has helped him when he’s face-to-face with funding committees…

What are you working on?

Two things, mostly: My NERC work investigates how differences among individuals create differences among species (the bridge between micro- and macroevolution).

My Wellcome Trust award asks how disturbance changes human population growth. By disturbance, I mean events like agricultural intensification, wars, pandemics, legislation of a National Health Service and many more besides. Even if they’re very short, these events can leave dynamic signatures that persist far into the future.

The second world war, for instance, left millions dead, but the survivors produced a baby-booming generation that are now at an age where their increased relative abundance poses significant financial, social and moral questions for population health. If human civilisation advances by adapting to events, it probably makes sense for us to get a better handle on how these events change populations.

What does your average day involve?

At the minute, each day typically starts by despairing at the often-witless coverage of the opinion polls for the general election!

Most of my days are spent meeting students to talk about their particular projects, or trying statistical or mathematical models for new ideas I’m just starting to try to think about. As I’m based across two campuses, some time is spent cycling the six kilometres between sites. Although less fun in winter, the cycling is a welcome break from staring at computer screens and gives me time and fresh air to think.

Why is your work important?

Exard NHM

Backstage at the Natural History Museum

It’s important because we have the opportunity to make decisions using a robust evidence base, rather than the whims of individuals. I despise a “this is how we’ve always done it, so this is how we’ll do it again” attitude. My Wellcome Trust project isn’t really the ‘Big Data’ cliché – medium data, perhaps. Moving from providing an evidence base to the actual changing of attitudes is a pretty substantial step though.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I’m really excited about working with the public policy team at Southampton to try to convert the mathematical models into something that improves how we plan places where people live.

I can’t wait to see how exceptional, in terms of sheer numbers, the baby boomers are compared to other cohorts responding to other disturbances.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

Chatting with Stuart Townley about what the demographic consequences of the menopause might be, rather than what we were supposed to be concentrating on (epigenetic inheritance).

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The Trust has enabled me to recruit a team of researchers working on different aspects of the same problem. As I’m at the start of my career as a Principal Investigator, a number of my PhD students are doing quite opportunistic projects in very different areas. Being able to design roles that complement each other and working with smart people in those positions means our progress meetings are genuinely interesting.

The support from the Trust has also helped take my work in a new direction – I first started thinking about these models as a tool to aid the conservation of threatened species. Whatever humans are, we are not critically endangered.

Image courtesy of Lookcatalog on Flickr - CC-BY

Image courtesy of Lookcatalog on Flickr – CC-BY

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

It’s not really a question, but I often hear variants on the “I don’t like maths/equations/statistics” theme. The perception that biology is not a rigorous quantitative science is suboptimal.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

When someone has worked for most of their whole career on a single system and wants to know why my models don’t predict it perfectly. The “why” part is because the follow-up is always, always, a “but you haven’t included X, so of course it doesn’t.”

I’m very much of the “all models are wrong, but some are useful” school of thought: I’m not trying to understand your particular system, I’m trying to benchmark changes across lots of systems, all with their own peculiarities.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I shared an office with Ellen Dowell, who is a brilliant creative producer of science engagement. Ellen “persuaded” me to do research-based stand-up comedy. I tried to convert one of my papers into a stand-up comedy set. The experience was terrifying, but terrifyingly brilliant. It’s also been excellent preparation for keeping it together while pitching projects to funding committees.

What keeps you awake at night?

T6233240407_81131e202c_zoo much blue light from faffing about with statistics on my computer.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Mr Lawrence (my GCSE maths teacher) told me that if I didn’t know what I wanted to do, keep doing maths.

The chain-reaction question, posed by previous spotlightee Dr Julija Kripic is this: When would you advise a person to pursue PhD or a scientific career in general? To put it differently, what does it take to be a scientist?

When interviewing prospective PhD students, I’m looking for a spark of creativity and a different way of thinking about a problem. I’m not interested in whether the person has a 1st class degree or 97% on the ecological modelling module, but how they pose questions. Science should be more about constructive questioning and criticism, not a “this is it” doctrine.

To find out more about Thomas Ezard and his research, you can follow him on Twitter and visit his profile on the University of Southampton website.

Image credits: Provided by author; NHM image thanks to Marina Rillo; Crowd image by Lookcatalog on Flickr, CC-BY; Implicit heart curve, by Duncan Hull – via Flickr – CC-BY


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