Dr Kirsty Wan

Dr Kirsty Wan

Research Fellow, Mathematics, Living Systems Institute

It’s [the Living Systems Institute’s]  “porous walls” and aspiration to be interdisciplinary will no doubt help foster new and perhaps unlikely collaborations.’ 


I obtained my Undergraduate, Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Cambridge in the areas of mathematical biology and biological physics. I have remained at Cambridge as a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. I also hold a Junior Research Fellowship from Magdalene College. 

Highlights of my career to date:

My own research started not so much with a project but with an organism, or rather, a lineage of organisms known as the green algae. Unbeknownst to many, these pond-dwelling microscopic algae can actually swim — powering their way through the fluid at several times its own body size per second using tiny limbs called cilia (yes the very same ones that are found in your lungs) and flagella. To these tiny appendages I have devoted much of my time, using a combination of theory and experimentation to address such key questions as how these move and coordinate, and even how noisy or deformable is the motion itself. Together with my wonderful colleagues in the Goldstein group in DAMTP, we authored a study which showed unequivocally for the first time that pairs of cilia can indeed be synchronized through external hydrodynamic interactions, which was selected as one of four outstanding publications by eLife for that year. Intriguingly however, I would also discover in certain species some rather intriguing flagellar coordination that originates from within the cell — once again highlighting that biology is rather a science of exceptions!

What excites me most about joining the LSI? 

Ever since it was first revealed to me that mathematics can be useful for solving problems in biology, I have found myself irresistibly drawn to its potential. During my time at Cambridge I have been very fortunate to have had all around me some of the best mathematicians and theorists in the world, but also ready access to a fully functioning experimental lab. It is this duality, or combination of disciplines that I have found most inspirational and conducive to the formation of new ideas. Mathematical biology, as a subject, is still in its infancy, and what the LSI offers therefore is a unique opportunity to nurture this new brand of science, free from the prejudices and constraints of traditional approaches.

Research work I will be undertaking in the LSI. 

In the behaviour of simple lifeforms there is often to be found something deeper that confounds us, or takes us by surprise. I subscribe to the sentiment of G.G. Simpson who once said: "All the essential problems of living organisms are already solved in the one-celled protozoan and these are only elaborated in man or the other multicellular animals.” In some sense, unicellular creatures have had a tougher problem to solve — often relying on the same organelle to fulfil multiple functions simultaneously. Looking more closely at these fascinating and diverse species of flagellates, how they can respond and adapt to a constantly changing environment, will not only provide much insight into key biophysical mechanisms, but given their resemblance to mammalian cilia, also have broader translational impact.  

Something about me that you can’t google! 

I had long since cultivated an appreciation of nature and the outdoors, spending many pleasant hours exploring (and getting lost in) the hills and dales of the Scottish Borders. I shall therefore look forward (with some trepidation) to swapping the 2D terrain of Cambridge for the moors and wilderness of Devon and Cornwall.