Make your ideas stronger by talking about them: Meet Bridget Penman

Dr Bridget Penman is an assistant professor at the University of Warwick. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford Department of Zoology and a BA in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford, and was previously a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford. She studies the co-evolution of humans with parasites, viruses and bacteria in order to help us understand infection and combat disease. She is taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

BP: Why does one person get sick from a virus, whilst another doesn’t notice they’re infected?  The answer may well be in their DNA.

I try to understand these differences in susceptibility to disease, and how we can use this information to better fight infections in the future. To do this, I study how human genes have evolved in response to infectious diseases. I get to think about the most fundamental process in biology: evolution by natural selection.  I also think a lot about human health, which it’s hard not to find fascinating!

My day to day research involves using computers to simulate human populations living with infections. If you’ve ever enjoyed playing a simulation-based computer game (e.g. SimCity), you’ll know how quickly you can become absorbed in a simulated system, making changes that you think will have one effect, and being surprised when something else happens.  My research is full of similar moments.  I test whether the biological processes I have simulated give rise to the patterns I expect, or something even more exciting.


SS: How did you get to your current position, and what inspired you to pursue a career in science?

BP: When I was studying biology at university, I met Professor Sunetra Gupta, who uses mathematical models to understand infectious diseases.  Sunetra is a hugely inspiring scientist, who gave me the chance to do a PhD in a diverse team of biologists, mathematicians and computer scientists.  I am now working at the University of Warwick, in a similarly interdisciplinary environment at the Zeeman Institute

For me, being able to apply mathematical techniques to biological questions was just as important as my interest in human disease in leading me to where I am today.  However important the scientific question, it helps if you enjoy the techniques you are applying as well, and can take pleasure in developing and excelling at those skills.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place? 

BP: Challenging stereotypical ideas about who scientists are and what they do is a great idea, and I think it’s wonderful that the event has become such a success over the past few years.  Even though the thought of getting on the soapbox is daunting, I also want to see what sorts of questions people ask on the day, which I hope will help me understand how best to communicate my own scientific ideas to the widest possible audience.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

BP: Adrenaline!


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia or research?

BP: Take up every opportunity you can to present your research to others: volunteer to give a lab meeting talk; apply for an oral presentation rather than a poster presentation at a conference.  I had to be encouraged to do those things myself, but I’m so glad that I received that extra push.  Every time you have to talk about your ideas, you have to refine them – so your ideas get stronger, and each time you present your work, you build up the confidence you will need to successfully apply for grants and jobs.


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