A brief history

This page was last updated on 13 October 2004.

I read mathematics at Imperial College from 1974-77 and then went up to Trinity College, Cambridge to do Part III of the mathematics tripos and a PhD in algebraic topology under Frank Adams. I was elected to a Research Fellowship at Trinity in 1981 but spent two years as L E Dickson Instructor at the University of Chicago before returning to Cambridge to take up my Fellowship.

I had the unusual experience in Chicago of setting up some of the first computer science courses taught there, while doing research and graduate teaching in pure mathematics. This was the start of a long fascination with complexity, both engineered and evolved, and with the limits of mathematical understanding. Computing systems, like biological systems, are complex in ways which pose a tremendous challenge to mathematics.

I joined Hewlett-Packard's corporate research lab in Bristol in 1987. My early work, on protocol analysis and new methods of performance analysis, prompted Hewlett-Packard to set up its first mathematics research group, which achieved many breakthroughs for the company. I then spent two years as a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Computer Science at Stanford, working on a joint programme, the STETSON project, which built the world's first fully-asynchronous communications chip. The mathematical ideas that originated here led to the emergence of a new research area, surveyed in the book on Idempotency which I edited for Cambridge University Press.

I returned to Bristol in 1994 to lead Hewlett-Packard's basic research programme in Europe. A major aspect of this was BRIMS, the Basic Research Institute in the Mathematical Sciences, a collaboration between Hewlett-Packard and the Universities of Bristol and Cambridge. BRIMS pioneered a unique model of academic-industrial collaboration which created new business options for Hewlett-Packard, in network switching and in quantum technology, while helping our academic partners build flourishing new research programmes. BRIMS logo
At the end of the 1990s, Hewlett-Packard's business strategy turned away from creating new businesses through organic technology development and towards growth by merger, starting with Compaq. The rationale for a basic research programme disappeared. The jury is still out on whether the new HP, no longer the old Hewlett-Packard, made the right decision.
My interest in biology was sparked by the obvious significance to a computer company of the Human Genome Project but the scientific challenges behind systems biology proved to be even more fascinating. I left HP in 2001 to spend 2 years as a Visiting Scientist and Head of Systems Biology at the Bauer Center for Genomics Research at Harvard. This gave me the opportunity to see biology from the inside and to formulate the ideas on which I am now working. I moved to the Department of Systems Biology at the Harvard Medical School in October 2003, where I am building up a new research group to study cellular signalling and decision making through a combination of experiment, computation and theory.

I served on the Council of EPSRC, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (the UK's equivalent of the US National Science Foundation), from 1999-2002. I held visiting appointments at MIT and Sydney and was Professeur Invitée at the École Normale Supérieure from March-April 2000. I have been a member of the NIH Special Study Section on computational biology since June 2002.

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