Working at the interface of statistics with applied and computational mathematics

Tagged: Student Led Symposia

My first conferences: A SAMBa story

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📥  Statistical Applied Mathematics

My first year at SAMBa has been quite an eventful one. I can definitely say that SAMBa has delivered on its promise to help me explore different areas of Mathematics. However, this post is not about maths at all (who are we kidding, it probably is), it rather concerns my experience of conference attendance. My very first one was a workshop on big models at the University of Warwick, which incidentally happens to be my undergraduate institution. The reason I went there was to see what the Institute of Data science was up to, and as expected, they were doing things that I was interested in. Statistics, applied mathematics, data science and machine learning.


Swisstech Convention Centre, Lausanne (courtesy of STCC)

My second conference was perhaps the most daunting one. In my quest to know more about uncertainty quantification (UQ), I took up a module with the local expert on it, Prof. Rob Scheichl. This led to the SIAM conference on uncertainty quantification in Lausanne. The venue was breathtaking, to say the least. It was in the Swisstech convention centre at the EPFL. I have never seen an auditorium with that much leg room during the plenary talks. To fund myself, I along with a fellow SAMBAlite, Gianluca, successfully applied for funding from MI-Net. Part of the deal of going there was to further inter university collaboration, and hence the day preceding the conference involved some informal chat with Fabio Nobile's research group. We exchanged ideas and research interests. The rest of the week involved us going to different sessions. They were quite daunting to be honest as most of the speakers were very, very good at what they did. This only increased my desire to actually start a research project and further my knowledge in a specialist area. The thing that I believe was most beneficial for me was to see the use of machine learning in UQ. This contributed to my decision to take up machine learning as my current research project as I could see that UQ would still be an option if I diverted away from it for a bit. I have to say though, my bilinguality helped a lot during the trip. I speak both French and English fluently, coming from a bilingual society (well, we're actually multilingual as most of us speak a third oriental language plus our local dialect, creole. Mauritius FTW right?).


Me, Gianluca and another SAMBa student Matt outside the conference in Lausanne

I went to my next conference after I had chosen my project (which is on automatic damage assessment in x-rays of Psoriatic Arthritis patients). It was a summer school on Gaussian Processes organised by the Machine Learning group at the University of Sheffield. It was the first year where they added the words "and uncertainty quantification" to it. I expected it to be full of computer scientists. To my surprise, the attendees were extremely diverse. There was an analytics team from formula 1; a guy working with Siemens (I think it was Siemens) on wind turbines; and wait for UQ lecturer from Warwick, Tim Sullivan (who is one of the most rigorous applied mathematicians I know) and my final year project supervisor, Mark Girolami. Uncertainty Quantification can mean many things! The summer school had practical sessions and talks from people who are very good at working with Gaussian Processes. One thing I got from the whole thing was that Gaussian Processes are used everywhere, from trying to optimise functions you cannot evaluate, to trying to fix the posteriors you get in Bayesian Inverse Problems. Is there a better alternative? Maybe. The search continues....


Antarctica as modelled using Markov Chain Monte Carlo, a key tool in Uncertainty Quantification (courtesy of the National Science Foundation)

The next conference I went to was very different from my two previous ones. It was actually one on Psoriatic Arthritis (PsA). No maths, just medical researchers and practitioners talking about, well, PsA. I did not get most of what was happening as they were talking about genes and things. They also mentioned "statistics" a lot of times. That was scary. I mean, really scary. When I asked them what kind of tests they were doing the answer was often "I don't know, I just press on a button in stata". It thus seemed to me that medical doctors in general need a better grasp of data science. Hence I tried to get some statistics training into their realm by suggesting we do a little session with consultants undergoing training. This was well received and it is hoped we can do it in the future during one of their training days.

You might be asking yourselves, how did you, a self proclaimed applied mathematician (please don't hate me, I know I did stats as a major) go to a medical workshop? Long story short: I was invited to a meeting in Bath on medical imaging, as I had now started working on this. There I met Prof. Neil McHugh, who works in pharmacology at the University of Bath. I mentioned my desire to know more about the PsA and he suggested I go there.

My English teacher always told me to put a concluding comment in my essays, and this is kind of an essay. The food at non-maths meetings, like the medical imaging one and the PsA one is way better. I had three course warm meals in both of them as opposed to the usual dried out sandwiches that repeat themselves n-times where n is the number of days the meetings stretch out for. Oh, and I'm writing this on a plane to Beijing where I transit before going to teach stats in Mongolia on SAMBa business. This one is for another time!


Mathematicians meet the Health Industry - SAMBa ITT4

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📥  Statistical Applied Mathematics

I am starting my PhD research at the interface of probability and analysis, which you might think is quite far removed from industrial applications.

So did I, until I participated in SAMBa ITT4.

In June, we students, along with academics from Bath and around the world came together with representatives from our industrial partners, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the NHS's Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases (RNHRD), for an intensive week-long workshop. The workshop is one of SAMBa's Integrative Think Tanks (or ITTs), which are highlights of the SAMBa Programme:

ITTs are ‘big events’, focal points in the calendar of SAMBa activity, and central to its goals. ITTs are facilitated workshops in which academic, industrial, and other external partners present problems requiring research solutions, with lectures on relevant background given by experts. Students are expected to define routes to the solution of these problems, identifying the new research that will be necessary to make this possible.

Representatives from both partners came to Bath in advance of the ITT to brief us on the work that they do and the problems that they are facing. These visits were a part of our Student Led Symposia, which you can read more about in Owen's blogpost. It was clear that both partners were working in exciting application areas, including developing personalised medication and improving the efficiency of clinical trials. At this point, however, none of the problems jumped out to me from a mathematical point of view. Once we got to the ITT I was proven wrong.

Students, academics and industrialists at SAMBa ITT4


The mix of people in the room generated lively discussion on the problems at hand and a huge range of ideas from all areas of mathematics were put forward to tackle them. Once the scattered ideas had been brought together into coherent groups, I decided to tackle one of AstraZeneca's problems: optimising the process of designing drugs. This seemed to be a problem in medical statistics, quite far from my own research interests, but I was quite happy to try working in a new area for a few days, as I had enjoyed doing at ITT3.

However, once we got into the problem, we found that it could be considered as a stochastic optimisation problem bringing this close to my own area of interest, and not too far from my proposed PhD topic. In fact, an undergraduate student is now doing further research along these lines over the summer, and we hope to pursue this further in the future.

The chance to work on an interesting industrial problem was not the only highlight of the ITT for me. Mathematics is often thought of as a solitary activity, but the ITT really encourages teamwork. The working groups which form allow students to work together with leading academics and experienced industrial partners - a really exciting and productive collaboration. Combined with regular coffee breaks, a dinner and plentiful after work drinks, this week was a brilliant opportunity to get to know new people from academia and industry alike.

So all in all, I found the ITT to be a fantastic experience, resulting in an insight into working with industry, lots of new acquaintances, and possibly even an industrial application for my research.


What is a Student-Led Symposium?

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📥  Statistical Applied Mathematics

It's perfectly reasonable that if you and I bumped into each other, part of our conversation would go something like this:

Me: "I'm co-organising the SAMBa Student-Led Symposium this semester."

You: "What's that?"

Me: "Well..."

So, the SAMBa Student-Led Symposium (or SLS) - what is it?

The SLS is a seminar/workshop organised by SAMBa students, where we get to do pretty much whatever we want (within the boundaries of mathematics and statistics). It also helps us prepare for the Integrative Think Tanks (ITTs) that happen at the end of each semester (for more on what the ITTs are like, see here.)

Rather than attempt to explain this further, I'll give you some examples of what's happened this semester.

In the SLS, we've had:

Workshops from students


Robbie Peck gave us a primer on clinical trials. Pictured is his `Low-Hanging Fruit of Medical Research'.

`Meta' maths talks


Euan Spence gave us a talk on How to Give a Good Maths Talk. Pictured is his `Inverse Problem' of maths talks.

Maths Workshops from academics


Chris Jennison told us about decision theory and joint clinical trials and Neill Campbell showed us how your phone makes those panorama pictures. Pictured is part of Chris' explanation of decision theory - based on what the weather forecast says, should you take your umbrella?

`Non-maths' workshops


Jack Betteridge and I did an introduction to Unix workshop. Eike Mueller gave us some sessions on the version control software Git. Pictured is what happens if you use the `rm' command in Unix recklessly.

Visits from Industrial Partners


Dr Will Tillet (from the RNHRD in Bath) asked whether we could speed up scoring the X-rays of Psoriatic Arthritis patients and Dr Alun Bedding (from AstraZeneca) explained how he wants to revolutionise the drug development process. Pictured is Alun talking about drug development at ITT4.

Talks from all of the SAMBa Cohort


We all gave critical talks on papers we'd read. Pictured is Adwaye Rambojun giving us a talk in semester one about Random Forests.

So, what is a Student-Led Symposium?

We've aimed at it being a discussion/seminar/workshop with a variety of topics - ask the rest of the SAMBa cohort if it's worked!