Wednesday, 2 September 2020

COVID-19 incidence is inversely proportional to T-cell production

One of the great puzzles of the current COVID-19 crisis is the observation that older people have a much higher risk of becoming seriously ill. While it is usually commonly accepted that the immune system fails progressively with age, the actual mechanism leading to this effect was not fully understood. In a recent work, Sam Palmer from Oxford Mathematics and his colleagues in Cambridge have proposed a simple and elegant solution to this puzzle. They focussed their attention on the thymus where T-cells, partially responsible for the body’s immune response, develop. Observational data show that the thymus shrinks in time, losing about 4.5% of its volume every year in adulthood. Remarkably, this decay correlates with the increase in risk with age. Indeed, many infectious diseases and cancer types have risk profiles that rise by the same 4.5% every year - that’s an exponential increase with a doubling time of 16 years. In their paper, they showed that COVID-19 hospitalisations follow the same trend with an increase of about 4.5% per year between age groups, suggesting that the main effect may be due to thymic function.

Another puzzle emerging from the data is that men have a systematic greater risk of hospitalisation and death. Again, the authors show that the answer may lie in the thymus as it is known that men have lower T-cell production.

What about the children who, thankfully, have been mostly spared? It turns out that the immune system for children under 20 years of age is very different than the one found in adults. It does not follow the same law of exponential decrease. The statistical analysis of this younger cohort shows that they are as likely to get infected, but they have a much lower probability of disease progression than what would be predicted from strong thymus function alone. A possible explanation of this observation is that this age group may be more protected due to cross-protection from common cold viruses, which they get more often than adults.

This research tying observational data with mechanistic models of the immune system is crucial in our understanding of COVID-19 and in our quest for therapeutic targets. Find out more about this work which was carried out with Ruairi Donnelly and Nik Cunniffe from University of Cambridge.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Oxford Mathematician and Fantasy Football winner kicks off the new Public Lecture season

The Premier League football season starts on 12 September and that means so does the Fantasy Premier League. So how are you going to play it this time? Need some tips? Joshua Bull from Oxford Mathematics won last season’s competition from nearly 8 million entrants. He kicks off the new Oxford Mathematics Public Lecture Season by telling you how. 

Fantasy Football is played by millions of people worldwide, and there are countless strategies that you can choose to try to beat your friends and win the game. But what’s the best way to play? Should you be patient and try to grind out a win, or are you better off taking some risks and going for glory? Should you pick players in brilliant form, or players with a great run of fixtures coming up? And what is this Fantasy Football thing anyway?

As with many of life’s deep questions, maths can help us shed some light on the answers. We’ll explore some classic mathematical problems which help us understand the world of Fantasy Football. We’ll apply some of the modelling techniques that mathematicians use in their research to the problem of finding better Fantasy Football management strategies. And - if we’re lucky - we’ll answer the big question: Can maths tell us how to win at Fantasy Football?

Joshua Bull is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Mathematical Institute in Oxford and the winner of the 2019-2020 Premier League Fantasy Football competition.

Watch live (no need to register):
Oxford Mathematics YouTube Channel

The Oxford Mathematics Public Lectures are generously supported by XTX Markets.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Richard Wade and Erik Panzer awarded Royal Society University Research Fellowships

Oxford Mathematicians Richard Wade and Erik Panzer have been awarded Royal Society University Research Fellowships for 2020. The Research Fellowship scheme was established to identify outstanding early career scientists who have the potential to become leaders in their chosen fields and provide them with the opportunity to build an independent research career.

Ric's main research area is geometric group theory, particularly the study of free groups and their automorphisms. He's interested in invariants of groups coming from topology (like cohomology) and rigidity problems. He also looks at trees and their deformation spaces.

Erik's research interests cover the mathematics of perturbative quantum (field) theory, in particular Feynman integrals, deformation quantization and resummation.


Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Oxford Mathematician Josh Bull wins Fantasy Football Premier League (out of 8 million entrants)

You are an Ipswich Town fan, so you need some fantasy in your life (they are not very good just now for those of you who are not football fans). Oxford Mathematician Josh Bull is an Ipswich fan. So he entered the Fantasy Football Premier League along with 8 million others, some of whom might even have been mathematicians. 

Result? He won. 

His secret. Well, yes he is a mathematician, but his real secret was not to choose any players from Ipswich's local rivals Norwich. It worked. Norwich came bottom of the real Premier League.

Watch out soon for Josh's Oxford Mathematics Public Lecture on the best strategies for Fantasy Football success.

Friday, 7 August 2020

James Maynard elected to Academia Europaea

Oxford Mathematicians James Maynard has been elected to Academia Europaea. He joins 13 other Oxford Mathematicians in the Academy which boasts 4000 members and 70 Nobel laureates. The Academy seeks the advancement and propagation of excellence in scholarship in the humanities, law, the economic, social, and political sciences, mathematics, medicine, and all branches of natural and technological sciences anywhere in the world for the public benefit and for the advancement of the education of the public of all ages in the aforesaid subjects in Europe.

Still only 33, James Maynard is one of the brightest stars in world mathematics at the moment, having made dramatic advances in analytic number theory in recent years. A recent interview in Quanta Magazine delves in to James's work and his thinking.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Bryan Birch awarded the Royal Society's Sylvester Medal for 2020

Oxford Mathematician Bryan Birch has been awarded the Royal Society's Sylvester Medal for 2020 for his work in driving the theory of elliptic curves through the Birch--Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture and the theory of Heegner points. The Birch--Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture is one of the Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Problems.

The Sylvester Medal is awarded annually for an outstanding researcher in the field of mathematics. The award was created in memory of the mathematician James Joseph Sylvester FRS who was Savilian Professor of Geometry at the University of Oxford in the 1880s. It was first awarded in 1901. The medal is of bronze and is accompanied by a gift of £2,000. 

Bryan Birch was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge where as a doctoral student he proved Birch's theorem, one of the results to come out of the Hardy–Littlewood circle method; it shows that odd-degree rational forms in a large enough set of variables must have zeroes.

He then worked with Peter Swinnerton-Dyer on computations relating to the Hasse–Weil L-functions of elliptic curves. They formulated their conjecture relating the rank of an elliptic curve to the order of a certain zero of an L-function; it has been an influence on the development of number theory since the mid 1960s. They later introduced modular symbols. 

In later work he contributed to algebraic K-theory (Birch–Tate conjecture). He then formulated ideas on the role of Heegner points (he had been one of those reconsidering Kurt Heegner's original work, on the class number one problem, which had not initially gained acceptance). Birch put together the context in which the Gross–Zagier theorem was proved. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1972; was awarded the Senior Whitehead Prize in 1993 and the De Morgan Medal in 2007. In 2012 he became a fellow of the American Mathematical Society.

Friday, 31 July 2020

Martin Bridson and Endre Suli elected to Academia Europaea

Oxford Mathematicians Martin Bridson and Endre Suli have been elected to Academia Europaea. The Academy seeks the advancement and propagation of excellence in scholarship in the humanities, law, the economic, social, and political sciences, mathematics, medicine, and all branches of natural and technological sciences anywhere in the world for the public benefit and for the advancement of the education of the public of all ages in the aforesaid subjects in Europe.

Martin is Whitehead Professor of Pure Mathematics in Oxford. His research interests lie in geometric group theory, low-dimensional topology, and spaces of non-positive curvature. He is also President of the Clay Mathematics Institute, a Fellow of Magdalen College and a former Head of the Mathematical Institute in Oxford.

Endre is Professor of Numerical Analyisis and a Fellow of Worcester College. His research interests include the mathematical and numerical analysis of nonlinear partial differential equations, and finite element methods.


Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Mathematical modelling of COVID-19 exit strategies

Mathematical models have been used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to help plan public health measures. Attention is now turning to how interventions can be removed while continuing to restrict transmission. Predicting the effects of different possible COVID-19 exit strategies is an important current challenge requiring mathematical modelling, but many uncertainties remain.

In May 2020, Oxford Mathematician Robin Thompson met with other mathematical modellers and scientists online at the 'Models for an Exit Strategy' workshop, hosted by the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge. Two of the other researchers are also based in Oxford (Prof. Christl Donnelly and Prof. Deirdre Hollingsworth). Many of the participants are providing evidence to governments worldwide during the pandemic. The workshop therefore gave an opportunity to summarise and discuss current open questions that, if answered, will allow the effects of different exit strategies to be predicted more accurately using mathematical models.

Three main research areas were outlined as requiring attention:

First, parameters governing virus transmission must be estimated more precisely. For example, statistical methods for estimating the time-dependent reproduction number ($R_t$) must be extended to include additional features. The value of $R_t$ represents the expected number of secondary cases generated by someone infected at time t, and changes continually during any epidemic.

Second, heterogeneities in transmission must be understood more clearly. Models can be constructed that include different types of heterogeneity, including spatial heterogeneity (which can be represented in network or household models) and age-dependent transmission.

Third, there must be a concerted effort to identify data requirements for resolving current knowledge gaps, particularly (but not exclusively) in low-to-middle-income countries. Models can be used not only to make predictions using limited available data, but also to reveal which data must be collected in order for more accurate predictions to be made.

These key challenges for improving predictions of the effects of different COVID-19 exit strategies are outlined in this paper which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B in August 2020. The challenges that are outlined require mathematicians to work with a diversity of other scientists and policy-makers as part of a global collaborative effort. This collaboration is of critical importance for shaping public health policy to counter this pandemic and those in the future.


Fig 1 (above): the transmission risk depends on the frequency of contacts between individuals and the transmission probability per infected-susceptible contact. This graph shows the average number of daily contacts between an individual in the age group on the x-axis and a contact in the age group on the y-axis, in the UK under normal circumstances (data from Prem et al. PLoS Comp Biol 13: e1005697, 2017). Figure generated by Francesca Lovell-Read (DPhil student in Oxford Mathematics' Wolfson Centre for Mathematical Biology).

Fig 2 (above): the main goal of any COVID-19 exit strategy is to relax public health measures without risking a surge in cases (like the one shown here).


Friday, 17 July 2020

Gui-Qiang G Chen elected Fellow of the European Academy of Sciences

Oxford Mathematician Gui-Qiang G Chen has been elected Fellow of the European Academy of Sciences. 

Gui-Qiang's main research areas lie in nonlinear partial differential equations (PDEs), nonlinear analysis, and their applications to mechanics, geometry, other areas of mathematics and the other sciences.

He is Statutory Professor in the Analysis of Partial Differential Equations, Professorial Fellow of Keble College, Director, Oxford Centre for Nonlinear Partial Differential Equations (OxPDE) and Director, EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Partial Differential Equations.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Cristiana De Filippis awarded Gioacchino Iapichino prize by the Italian National Academy

Oxford Mathematician Cristiana De Filippis has been awarded this year’s Gioacchino Iapichino prize in Mathematical Analysis by the Italian National Academy, the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. The prize recognises outstanding contributions to the field by early-career mathematicians.

Cristiana has been a postgraduate student in the Oxford Centre for Nonlinear PDEs for the past 4 years and successfully defended her DPhil thesis in June 2020. Her research interests include the Calculus of Variations and Regularity Theory.