Pits and Parasites

aeldra aeldra at netcom.com
Thu Jun 2 13:37:35 EST 1994

The featured article from the May 27th issue of the Times Higher Education
Supplement takes a look at Roy Anderson, a scientist who holds the Linacre
chair of biology at Oxford, and his study of the relationships between 
organisms. Here is an excerpt from Jon Turney's article "Pits and Parasites." 

For Roy Anderson, real science began in a disused gravel pit in
Dagenham. But when he went fishing there, he took  several convictions
along with his net. As a young doctoral student at Imperial College, he
was already a biologist who believed in understanding numbers; in "the
power of mathematics for precision in describing complicated

He was also gripped by the idea that you could use maths to unravel
interactions between organisms - especially the most intimate
interactions in which lives and deaths are intertwined: parasite and
parasitised, pathogen and host.
That idea has since led him through landmark studies of a vast range of
diseases: diseases of animals and of humans; diseases poorly or well
understood; diseases feared for millenia and some, like AIDS, no-one had
heard of when he began; diseases on the way to eradication or, again
like AIDS, still gathering strength. Throughout, he has viewed diseases
from the biologist's point of view. In fact, with his collaborator of 20
years Robert May, he has established epidemiology as a branch of
population biology.

Today, just getting comfortable in the Linacre chair of Zoology at
Oxford, he is most enthusiastic about taking the population biologist's
view down to another level - of cellular interactions within
a diseased host. But the ideas are still recognisably an outgrowth of
the research programme which began in that Dagenham gravel pit.

"I wanted an enclosed population where one could really get to grips
with the dynamics of the host population and the pathogen". The pit was
perfect. There were lots of fish. They couldn't go anywhere, and they
were easy to get at.

In those days, both the system he studied and the maths were limited.
But the principles which emerged still hold good. Make simple models
first, and check their predictions as best you can. Introduce
complications to account for additional features of the system one at a
time, to see if the fit with observation improves. Watch that the models
don't get too far ahead of the data. And remember that setting up the
equations may be as useful for guidance about what to try
and measure as for making actual predictions.

In modelling the spread of AIDS, for example, the rates of sexual
contact between people with many partners and those with relatively few
turn out to be crucial.  If those who crave variety mainly sleep with
each other, the long-term outcomes are better than if they mix freely
with those who are more settled in their habits.

As Anderson describes it, though, the motivation for the work has always
been scientific rather than practical. "I get most excitement out of
understanding a problem, and I get excitement out of writing a paper and
seeing it published - I get enormous pleasure out of that".

That excitement first focussed on ecology under the influence of a
schoolteacher, and was amplified during an undergraduate degree at
Imperial College in the 1960s. After the doctoral work he spent a couple
of years in Oxford "trying to strengthen my mathematics background", and
then started teaching at Kings College in London.

He was already aware of Robert May, an ecologist who trained as a
theoretical physicist and so also had a well-stocked mathematical
toolkit. When they finally met at a meeting in York 20 years ago, their
collaboration took off. "Both of us had very different sets of
techniques, and different conceptual ways of approaching problems - and
they just melded".

As Anderson now tells it, he had a series of views of biological
problems where he thought the conventional treatment was not correct,
and May helped him to see the best way to redescribe them. "What the
theoretical physicist has is a way of conceptualising a problem and
fitting it into a mathematical framework".  Their relationship, deepened
by a shared passion for mountain walking, and for long games on a
rabbit-infested croquet lawn at Imperial College's Silwood Park, is
still productive; "I still find working with him an absolute joy".

So begins this issue's featured article from the Times Higher Education 

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