Professor Mike Bonsall is so evangelical about his subject and such an enthusiastic academic, with a particular passion for insects, it is hard to imagine him being anything other than an Oxford professor of Biology with mosquitos in the freezer. But he also tells a very good story and laughs as he recalls explaining to someone that he nearly decided to do something completely different.
‘I told them I had faced a choice, when I was leaving school. I could join the RAF or do Biology at university [pause]…They asked which I had decided to do,’ he rocks with laughter. ‘I mean, I’m not wearing a uniform…’
I had faced a choice, when I was leaving school. I could join the RAF or do Biology at university [pause]…They asked which I had decided to do...I mean, I’m not wearing a uniform
Professor Bonsall’s acute sense of humour is evident. It is a very hot day but, for more than an hour, he has been explaining his wide academic interests and research, with undimmed enthusiasm and energy.
‘I like playing in other people’s back yards,’ Professor Bonsall explains genially, talking about genetically modified insects, which could help battle malaria; Maths, which can help solve biological problems; his involvement in wine production (don’t ask); his projects on mental health treatments; calculations of the likelihood of human extinction; and, not for the faint hearted, the threat of bio-weapons, the need for bio-security and a policy to go with it.
Professor Bonsall is Associate Head (Education) for Oxford's MPLS Division and leads the Mathematical Ecology Group in the Department of Biology. He could easily appear in a recruitment video – for Biology. With mathematical problem solving, Biology, he insists, is the subject of the future.
‘It’s always played second fiddle to Physics and Chemistry,’ says a buoyant Professor Bonsall. ‘But I’m a strong advocate for Biology. Chemistry and Physics have had their day. It’s Biology’s time now, without a doubt.
Chemistry and Physics have had their day. It’s Biology’s time now, without a doubt
‘You need quantitative scientists – people who can engage with all the methods that are emerging – such as AI and machine learning; and Biology can solve real world problems. The use of Maths and Biology just going to grow – Biology is becoming a quantitative science, which it always has been, of course, but even more.’
In the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to imagine what some of those problems might be. Professor Bonsall chooses his words with care, when he talks about the potential bio-issues facing humanity, recognising the potential for sci-fi reality; be it accidental or weaponised.
There needs to be a lot more resources placed into [bio-security]. With emerging regimes and all of these molecular tools growing, we’re going to need strong bio-security in place, protecting national borders, it’s super important
‘It is quite scary,’ admits Professor Bonsall
Bio-security is something we need to be taking very seriously, he maintains, ‘There needs to be a lot more resources placed into that. With emerging regimes and all of these molecular tools growing, we’re going to need strong bio-security in place, protecting national borders, it’s super important.’
That sounds quite scary?
‘It is quite scary,’ admits Professor Bonsall, who was working on bio-security proposals six months before the pandemic. ‘It’s not that hard to think how things could all go horribly wrong: what people are developing – thinking through what that might look like…. If I were going to push anything, that would be it.’
‘We need capability in place. It needs to be taken seriously, and become part of the national infrastructure,’ says Professor Bonsall, who is painfully aware some biological advances – which produce immense benefits, for health, agriculture and industry - also have other applications.
But what can we do? How could we respond to such threats?
‘It is important to have policies and measures for dual-use technology, and to think where hazards are coming from,’ he says. At the same time, Professor Bonsall says, Biology needs to come up with answers, ‘If we see a novel pathogen, can we backtrack, can we understand where it’s got to, where it’s spread, where it’s come from? Has it emerged from a bat, a bird, was it engineered in some way?’
With science moving very quickly in this area, he is clear about the need for regulations to catch up and respond to innovation. Professor Bonsall adds, ‘We need to think through the sort of things that we do. Gene editing, for example, can be used to solve some real-world agricultural problems. But you’ve got to think about the risks associated with that.’
I like playing in other people’s back yards, explains the Biology professor, who works across multiple areas and uses Maths. He has been involved in mental health treatments, wine production, malaria research and bio-threats...
He maintains, ‘We need to be much clearer about who is responsible for setting standards and what is acceptable. Should it sit with a government department or a new body?’
Professor Bonsall is anything but opposed to advances, perceiving the incredible benefits that could be forthcoming from the technology that was, even five years ago, considered very difficult. Currently, he is working on ‘gene editing’ malaria-bearing mosquitos, which could potentially help eradicate the illness, alongside vaccines.
‘Malaria within the right framework and with the will is a solvable problem,’ he says. ‘It really needs the political motivation to make it work. Science is opening up vistas we haven’t had before…the tools that molecular biology is providing us with – it is a unique set of ways, in which we can edit organisms.’
Could it all go wrong, like a science fiction film?
Science is opening up vistas we haven’t had before…the tools that molecular biology is providing us with – it is a unique set of ways, in which we can edit organisms.’
Could it all go wrong, like a science fiction film? Yes, but....
He laughs seriously, ‘It could all go wrong…but we understand the science of this, understand about limiting spread, there are lots of restrictions but…for lots of reasons, science communications [have been] poor.’
While there are good reasons for restrictions around gene editing, he says, there are no restrictions on other potential bio-hazards, ‘We’re doing a single gene edit on a mosquito to control malaria, and that is very strictly regulated, but there is nothing to stop a whole new genome being released into an environment [he gives the example of weevils introduced in the US to control thistles, which have now run amok].’
‘The regulatory frameworks are fantastically different,’ he says. ‘It’s super-highly-regulated in my space, but there are no bio-controls of a whole genome.’
‘The approach you take matters, making sure our regulatory framework is proportionate and not preventing innovation. There is lots of cool science coming out daily…that’s why I got interested in Biology. I’m in awe of the natural world.’
Whatever nasties he unleashed on his unsuspecting mother, it was to lead him to take a degree in Biology at Imperial College – because there was an option in insects, he says. ‘It was the only place which offered it, so I went there. I’m a product of Imperial, I stayed there to do a PhD and came to Oxford about 15 years ago.’
What had also interested him at Imperial was Mathematical problem solving and statistics.
The professor confesses he was not a good pupil and did not do well at school, despite his keen interest. His path to university came through a foundation course...But, as soon as he went to university, it was as though a light had gone on
‘I was interested in using these approaches to solve biological problems,’ says Professor Bonsall, who has gone on to make this his central work and led to him being offered a post at Oxford where, he says, ‘The Zoological department as was, Biology now, was really great. It’s like being in a candy shop. There are all these fantastically smart people – I got involved with lots of different groups.’
It is, though, a far cry from his schooldays. The professor confesses he was not a good pupil and did not do well at school, despite his keen interest. His path to university came through a foundation course, which led on to the Imperial undergraduate course. But, as soon as he went to university, it was as though a light had gone on.
‘I loved the library. I didn’t do so well at school. I didn’t find school compelling, but I found university amazing, the approach to independent learning suited me,’ he explains.
From his interest in Maths and Biology, he has found a very ‘catholic’ approach to the life sciences and using Maths. He has been closely involved with the Psychology department, working out the likelihood of bi-polar episodes, based on datasets. And his team has worked on treatments for PTSD – using Mathematical methods.
‘You can use Maths [to create equations] to help you solve the problem you’re trying to tackle,’ he explains.
Is there anything for which you cannot write an equation?
Using Maths and writing equations has seen Professor Bonsall stray into some extremely unusual areas: what is the likelihood of real live aliens existing and when will humanity go extinct?...
‘We can work out – put a number on [extinction]…. whether we find life on another planet is a similar problem'
After a moment’s thought, Professor Bonsall laughs, ‘I think not… It’s mainly the questions: is it amenable to a quantitative approach?’
For instance, he says, ‘You get people to think about trauma experienced, people with PTSD, then get them to play Tetrus – full speed. This interferes with how they remember…It helps to control intrusive memories. Over the last year or so, we have been working on the statistics of this – and how can be rolled out.’
With typical enthusiasm, Professor Bonsall talks of his delight for playing in a variety of backyards, ‘Broad brush: one of the things Oxford provides is the space for this creativity to develop – it’s fantastic.’
We are four fifths of the way through the lifetime of the sun – in a few billion years, we have to think through how we deal with that
He acknowledges that Mathematical modelling has had something of a bad image of late, what with criticism of models of COVID-19 spread. But, Professor Bonsall insists, ‘What would it have been like if we didn’t have them…using the models helped understand spread…and interventions. And it was possible to see what happened with mask wearing or vaccines and even compliance. The Maths provided us with options.’
But, he says, ‘It’s just part of a tool set, an evidence-base for making a decision. If you’re following the science, that’s the right place to be…but you have to be able to get to a decision that is acceptable.
‘Hindsight is wonderful…. Two years ago, the Maths was telling us, if you lockdown for a month in October, you can push the peak to April 2021 [after the vaccine had been introduced]. Only with hindsight you can see we were right. The lockdown came at the end of November and the peak was in the winter months.’
Using Maths and writing equations has seen Professor Bonsall stray into some extremely unusual areas: what is the likelihood of real live aliens existing and when will humanity go extinct?
‘I wasn’t looking at the risk from climate change or war,’ he says. ‘But how we apply Maths to look at the existential risk of human extinction…what we know is, species evolve or they go extinct.
From bio-security to gene editing to the future of humanity, there are a lot of philosophical questions around Professor Bonsall’s work
'It's really cool,' he says.
‘We can work out – put a number on it…. whether we find life on another planet is a similar problem. There have been a series of hard steps [in evolutionary terms] on this planet – and we have only seen that once…. So, on that basis, the chance of finding complex life is quite rare. But, if we found it on another planet, that would change the equation.’
Casually, he says, ‘We are four fifths of the way through the lifetime of the sun – in a few billion years, we have to think through how we deal with that.’
From bio-security to gene editing to the future of humanity, there are a lot of philosophical questions around Professor Bonsall’s work. He insists, ‘Maths helps us frame those questions. But it’s important to have a group of people with diverse skills - with Maths, Biology, Philosophy. It’s a melting pot. I love it. ‘
He adds, for the umpteenth time, ‘It’s really cool.’