Rachel Cavill
"The Basilica of Our Lady has all these different architectural styles and yet they all come together. It’s the architectural version of my work."

One plus one equals three

Biology and mathematics offer a lot to each other. One has all sorts of interesting data, while the other knows how to put it to work.

Mathematical matchmaking

Cavill looks for ways to overcome these challenges, as well as a number of other data-related problems biologists face. One of her solutions is to build mathematical models which represent part of the datasets that need to be united. By modelling both the joint and separate parts in each dataset, she works out how they are related. A second solution comes from the wealth of biological knowledge that is already available. “Over the years, they’ve been getting that out of textbooks and into public databases. We use that information to look for bits of data that we already know go together.”

On top of it all, Cavill strives to make her mathematics accessible. “For biologists, the maths isn’t very clear. I also try to make the plots that come out of these models more interpretable.”


It’s mathematics, biology and computer sciences all in one. Cavill’s interdisciplinary thinking doesn’t stop there, however. She’s now looking towards artificial intelligence. “Some of the methods I use are related to what people in the field of machine learning are doing. I hope I can learn additional techniques from there, which are not yet applied to this field.”

Cavill modestly calls it “rambling research”, something she has learned during her PhD where she was allowed to explore whatever topic she wanted. “I made the deliberate choice to go into biology once I found out that biologists were starting to measure all these things. I thought: I know what I’m doing with data, I could be quite useful there!”

Judging from the number of biologists eager to be part of her synergistic approach, this already incredibly versatile scientist has a talent for understatements, too.

Rachel Cavill

Reconciling architecture

“The Basilica of Our Lady has all these different architectural styles,” Cavill says, “and yet they all come together. It’s the architectural version of my work, if you will. One of the things I try to show is that you can get more out of a smart combination of datasets, than when you analyse them all separately. It’s reflected in the very, very different parts of the Basilica of Our Lady, which still make a consistent whole.”


The Basilica of Our Lady

Basilica of Our Lady
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