It’s not an unreasonable assumption that biology and computer science are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum, with little interaction between the two outside of a computer scientist noticing a cool tree or a biologist frustrated with getting their laptop to work. Though it could be said that this was the case in the past, in modern biological sciences, computer science has become a vital component of many fields.
Hello! I’m Matthew, and prior to starting my PhD, I studied both of the above fields, completing BScs in both computer science and Zoology. I studied the former first, at Manchester Metropolitan University. My courses there taught me how to code in various languages and how to use different tools, whilst also giving me insights into the theory behind it all. Although the courses were effective and my lecturers did fantastic jobs of using their expertise to help me understand these concepts, there was a key element which, for me, was lacking: what the point of it all was. Without a clear context of how coding was going to be useful outside of completing my coursework and passing my exams I felt detached from my studies. From this, I began looking for something more fulfilling, finding my way to the University of Aberdeen, this time studying Zoology. I had always felt connected to the field, with my child-hood heroes being the likes of David Attenborough and Steve Irwin, and much of my childhood spent gawking at the wildlife in my garden. Within this course I found what I was looking for. I was immediately thrown headfirst into the stunningly deep and complex world of the biological sciences, from the diversity of life on earth to the intricate chemical interactions of our cells.
What particularly took hold of me was being in a field which had the potentially to help combat the negative impacts on the natural world generated by human society. I was able to clearly see the threat of climate change and other anthropogenic activity in a new, more in depth resolution. Begin so close to such issues made it painfully obvious what the point of my studies was. I wanted to help to slow and eventually reverse the tide of biodiversity loss we are currently seeing. This is the goal that leads me to my project.
When looking for potential post-graduate study options I received an email pertaining to open QUADRAT DTP studentships, one of which being titled ‘Harnessing the power of AI for biodiversity forecasting’. It felt like a match made in heaven, and a chance to make use of my computer science background in a way that was directly linked to my newfound goal. In my work, I will be investigating whether artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to predict species trait data. Such trait data is vital for understanding how anthropogenic activity will impact a species, though for many it is also lacking, making such predictions difficult. As such, through my project I hope to utilise AI to fill these data gaps, allowing for predictive modelling to be carried out accurately, and effectively. If I am successful in my work, this project has the potential for large scale impact, throughout conservation biology. Such an in-depth understanding of the relationship between species and their environment will allow for robust and reliable conservation efforts to be put in place, whilst also informing both private companies and governments of the potential impacts of land development initiatives.