Dr Robin Thompson wins 2017 PLOS Computational Biology Research Prize

Dr Robin ThompsonDr Robin Thompson, Junior Research Fellow in Mathematics/Biology at Christ Church, has been awarded the 2017 PLOS Computational Biology Research Prize for his paper entitled ‘Detecting Presymptomatic Infection is Necessary to Forecast Major Epidemics in the Earliest Stages of Infectious Disease Outbreaks’.

The research for this paper, carried out by Dr Thompson and colleagues at the University of Cambridge as part of his PhD studies there, involved modelling outbreaks of infectious disease. The team used mathematical modelling to show that for accurate epidemic prediction in the earliest stages of an outbreak, it is necessary to develop and deploy diagnostic tests that can distinguish between hosts that are healthy and those that are infected but are not yet showing symptoms, after which the resulting data must be integrated into epidemic models. The team won the 2017 PLOS Computational Biology Research Prize for the public impact of their work about diagnostic testing for Ebola.

PLOS Computational Biology is an official journal of the International Society for Computational Biology (ISCB), which makes connections through the application of computational methods amongst disparate areas of biology in order to provide new insight into living systems at all scales and across multiple disciplines, from molecular science, neuroscience and physiology to ecology and population biology.

The PLOS Computational Biology Research Prize was launched by PLOS Computational Biology in 2017, with the aim of recognising the journal’s best Research Articles published last year (2016) in three prize categories: Breakthrough Advance/Innovation, Exemplary Methods/Software, and Public Impact. The journal invited the community to nominate their favourite Research Articles published in the journal in 2016, and the winners from these nominations were selected by the PLOS Computational Biology Research Prize Committee, made up of Editorial Board members. To help support future work, the authors of each winning paper received award certificates and a $2000 prize.

In an article announcing the winners of this year’s Research Prize, PLOS Computational Biology stated that Dr Thompson’s paper, winner of the Public Impact category, ‘highlights a major challenge to predicting whether a disease outbreak in its earliest stages might develop into a widespread epidemic, using mathematical modelling to show that accurate prediction is impossible without available data on the number of people who are infected but not yet showing symptoms’.

Dr Thompson studied Maths at Worcester College, Oxford, before gaining a PhD in Mathematical Epidemiology from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, and he has undertaken undergraduate teaching on a number of topics on the Mathematics degree in Oxford. His research involves mathematical modelling of the spread and control of infectious disease outbreaks, including both theoretical work and applications to epidemics in humans, animals and plants. He is currently working on a probabilistic modelling framework for managing outbreaks of diseases such as bovine TB and foot-and-mouth. He said, “I am investigating the optimal time to introduce control of a newly invading pathogen. Early control can be beneficial since the outbreak might be suppressed before the pathogen sweeps through the population. However, later control carries the advantage that it allows transmission parameters to be estimated more accurately and interventions to be optimised. Deciding when to initiate control is therefore an optimal stopping problem, and involves balancing the benefits of waiting against the potential costs of the pathogen becoming widespread.”