Mathematics and MND

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Following on from physics and X-rays; Matt Gabel is an MND Association PhD student at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School who is using mathematics to study MND. Here Matt blogs about his day and what it’s like being a PhD student.

I’ve just finished my weekly meeting with my supervisors, and I’m walking back over to my lab with a long list of things that I need to do: reading MND papers, filling in PhD paperwork, and emailing colleagues in London about whether they’ve made a fancy new adaptation to the model I’m working on.

My name is Matt, and I’m a first year PhD student using mathematics to study MND.

Even two years ago, I didn’t think I’d be able to work in medicine. I was doing a maths degree, and had my head full of calculus, imaginary numbers and group theory. Then third year module choices came along, and towards the back of the booklet was a course called ‘Medical Statistics’. I signed up for it, along with Maths Biology, and then went off on my summer holiday.

A year later, I’d finished my degree and fallen in love with medical maths. It had all the aspects that I enjoyed: it was concrete, based in the real world, and it was complicated enough to be satisfying*.   Two internships later, and I knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do as a career. It was a short leap from that to deciding that research was the area I should be working in, and then applying for this PhD.

It’s been a much bigger leap moving from studying an undergraduate degree into research. I’ve spent the last four months getting to grips with neuroanatomy, MRI theory and techniques, and (most dauntingly) learning to use Linux. As someone who isn’t fond of paperwork, ethics applications are my current bête noire, but I’m coming to the end of that process. At least, that’s what I hope. Really, really hope.

The view from my lab
The view from my lab

I work in a lab (well, computer write-up room, but that doesn’t sound anywhere near as exciting or glamorous) with wet-lab scientists, who are working on all sorts of things from the physical healing process to infectious diseases. My work is more theoretical than theirs – they frequently disappear off to put on their lab coats and blue latex gloves – but my computer screen usually has pictures of brains on it, or I’m analysing the movement of water molecules in a brain. The scanning process that shows this movement – ‘diffusion’ – is the MRI technique that gives me the bulk of the data for my project. At the end of three years, I should have a model of the physical brain changes that are caused by MND. This disease progression model should help show where other research should be targeted, and most importantly, help patients be given the correct care.

“I didn’t realise you’d done medicine!” is the most frequent response I get when friends ask what I’m doing.   They tend to look confused while I explain that no, I’m still a mathematician, but I’m doing medical research. I guess that’s the point of this blog post: you don’t need to be a medic to help with MND research.

*Satisfying is an odd concept to explain, as it’s not the first thing most people think of when they remember their school maths exams. The best I can do is to compare it to finishing a crossword or a sudoku.

The MND Association’s vision is a world free from MND. Realising this vision means investing more in research, further developing partnerships with the research community, funding bodies and industry, while ensuring that advances in understanding and treating MND are communicated as quickly and effectively as possible. Our Research Development team, composed of 11 members, work hard to achieve this. Principally, the Research Information team within this are involved in communication activities including this MND Research blog.

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