Dr Alan Lai: mathematician-turned-bioinformatician

27 August 2015

Mathematician-turned-bioinformatician, Dr Chung Lun Alan Lai talks about his career shift away from theoretical mathematics.

Following a move to Heidelberg, Germany, in June 2014, Lai reoriented himself and was able to utilise his love of mathematics to dive into life science. While he was originally forced to make the change by his struggle to find a job in the theoretic world, he now relishes the different mentality in the field of applied maths as well as the daily challenge of applying his knowledge in various new contexts.

“As a purist you make things absolutely clear before proceeding to the next step.
The work of a bioinformatician may be maths related but the goal is a different one: You don’t aim for a theorem or model; it is the result that counts”, Lai observed.

Lai’s first ‘detour’ was as a Hilfswissenschaftler, a research assistant, for almost a year. It was at this point that he began to play with the analysis of biological data – the first step leading him towards bioinformatics.

Following his stint as a Hiwi, Lai joined a cardiology group as a bioinformatician – his current job. In this position, his workload is very diverse. Although he cannot claim full ownership of any one particular project, his skills in data analysis, statistics and developing models are needed across all projects, as everything is data-centric.

Lai notes a shift in his attitude towards his career goals, and says that he feels more suited to the practical word, compared with purely theoretical mathematics- “you produce theories that you wishfully hope to be useful in the future instead of having a more direct impact on solving society’s problems.” For instance, the research group he now part of is trying to find the mutations which are responsible for specific diseases, in order to provide the basis of next generation medicines.

Dr Chung Lun Alan Lai won a Croucher fellowship in 2011 for his postdoctoral research on noncommunicative geometry and mathematical physics at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California. Lai completed his BSc in Mathematics in 2005, at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, his MSc in Mathematics in 2006 at the University of Toronto, Canada, and his PhD in 2011, at the University of Toronto, Canada.

To view Dr Chung Lun Alan Lai’s personal Croucher profile, please click here.

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