Sunday, 30 April 2017

Now where was I? Meeting Oliver Pybus.

When you become a member of staff at Oxford you undergo an induction programme for all new staff. This allows them to Oxfordise you. They pay particular attention to undergraduate interviews as Oxford is very conscious about its reputation and accusations that it does not take enough students from state schools. As I was only going to teach graduate students I avoided that part but in one of the sessions I met a new up and coming member of staff from zoology.

His background was in viral phylogenetics. When I was a teen I had read Manfred Eigen and I had been struck by his alignment, where the conserved alignment did not match any of the individual sequences. This is a perfect example of the dangers of taking averages but Eigen caused controversy by extending it to create his theory of quasi-species. I commented that I had read Eigen and his theory of quasi-species when I was a teen and what did he think.

He couldn't have been ruder and more dismissive if he tried.

"Well I suppose that is the sort of thing a teen would read. Personally I have not read any books in years."

This was the first time that I met Oliver Pybus and it left a lasting impression. It is hard to believe that an academic avoids reading books, especially if they are going to have a wide range of expertise. Most academics are famous for the size of their libraries. He was certainly full of himself and very confident in his own abilities. Humility was definitely not one of his strong-points and I took an instant disliking to him, which I felt was mutual. Unfortunately this has probably caused me more than a few problems in getting my work in phylogenetics published.

I did not have anything to do with Oliver while I was at Oxford even though we were in adjoining buildings. I saw him now and then talking hepatitis phylogenetics with Paul Klenerman in Darwin's but my interest was at that time more on systems biology and modelling signalling processes using stochastic dynamic models. I only got involved in viral phylogenetics when I left Oxford to go to the Institute of Animal Health.

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