What is it really like to be a scientist? Royal Society Wolfson Fellow Carola-Bibiane Schönlieb describes a day in her working life.

Test tubes with brightly coloured liquid.

I am an applied mathematician, working at the University of Cambridge. Most of my time nowadays is spent on research, research management and lots of research communication. Thinking about my typical working day, I think, in fact, there is no such thing. But I can give an example.

I am definitely an early riser, waking up at 5am. This time in the morning is my time. When everything else is quiet I do some yoga or go running with the dog, and I do some mental work, working on a research paper or reading up on something I want to learn more about. These few hours in the morning are very important for me and give me a good start into the rest of the day.

Close collaboration

Working at the interface of mathematics and image analysis, most of my work is collaborative, with other mathematicians or statisticians, or with researchers from other disciplines. I have many interdisciplinary collaborations with clinicians, biologists and physicists on biomedical imaging topics, chemical engineers and plant scientists on image sensing, as well as collaborations with artists and art conservators on digital art restoration.

At 9am I have my first project meeting. Today, I am meeting with my team in the all-in-one cancer imaging project, where we design an automated platform to track tumour dynamics from computerised tomography (CT) images. This is a close collaboration between mathematicians and clinicians which I truly enjoy as this interdisciplinary approach is so much more than its individual components.

Then at 10am I have a steering committee meeting of the University-wide Cambridge Centre for Data Driven Discovery (C2D3) which I chair. Apart from loving to do research myself, I also take satisfaction from facilitating research and bringing the right people together, who then go off and do great things. This meeting usually lasts about two hours. 

Before having a quick lunch and a short walk in the park with my dog, I quickly phone one of my colleagues at Bath to coordinate for a mock interview that we are having tomorrow for a large multi-institutional grant on mathematical aspects of deep learning.

After lunch I have meetings with my PhD students and Postdocs. My research time I mostly spend with them. I have a large research group and working with them is my favorite thing in the world. They are wonderful and inspire me. I have three such meetings in a row – quickly taking the dog out again for ten minutes in between meetings and making myself a cup of tea. 

Daily COVID call

At 4:30pm we are having our daily COVID-call. Since March 2020 I co-lead, together with a colleague in Radiology, a large team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and collaborators around the world on the development of an AI-tool for COVID-19 diagnosis and prognosis from chest imaging and clinical data. We are, I think, a wonderful team, many of us spending a huge amount of time on this outside our day jobs. 

Today, I am finishing with a talk ‘at’ Caltech, scheduled for 6pm. I love research communication and the group at Caltech are very good and super nice. So, a nice way to finish the day. 

Shortly after 7pm I close my last Zoom meeting and I look at my email inbox: one hundred unread emails. I answer a few, walk the dog again and cook dinner with my husband.