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Interview with MathSys graduate Iliana Peneva

Iliana graduated from MathSys last year. During her PhD she worked on developing a Bayesian clustering methodology to identify cancer sub-types from multiple data sources simultaneously. She has since joined the Oxford Big Data Institute (BDI) as a postdoc from January 2019 where she continues working in cancer research. More recently, she and a couple of her colleagues at the BDI have begun looking into developing a personalised fertility and health indicator app for women using a bespoke biomarker test. Read the interview below to find out more about what she is up to these days!

You started working at the BDI soon after submitting your thesis. Could you tell us more about your job search experience?

Iliana: During my final year of PhD, I started exploring the different options for my post-PhD career. I knew I wanted to do more work in the area of cancer research, that would ideally be a bit different from my PhD work, so I looked into what different cancer genomics and statistics groups in the UK worked on and I applied to a few that matched my interests. I focused my search on cancer institutes, where there is little teaching and other non-research commitments. There was a job opening at David Wedge’s cancer genomics group at the Big Data Institute, University of Oxford, that seemed to offer the perfect combination of statistics, bioinformatics and genomics, and I applied for it. The job application was simple and straightforward – I had to send my CV and a cover letter. I had an interview with David and 2 of his Oxford collaborators, where I had to present an overview of my PhD research and a summary of one of his papers, and to answer some general questions about my future plans, the type of work I enjoy more (alone/in a team and analytical/methodological) and any support I would require to settle in the new job. I got the offer email within a few days and I was excited to start the job (and work on something different from my PhD) after I submitted my thesis.


What does your typical day look like at the BDI (during non-lockdown times)?

Iliana: My typical day is best expressed with gifs (scroll to the end of the page). Apart from that, I have a few meetings with my supervisor and my colleagues every week to discuss the projects and I often need to prepare slides and a report to summarise the work I’ve done and any ideas for further investigation. We also have a lab meeting on Thursdays where somebody from the group presents their work on a project or we have a workshop/brainstorming session. There are always interesting seminars in cancer biology, genomics, statistics, & symposiums going on in Oxford so I would attend any relevant to my work and interests.


How does your postdoc experience compare to your PhD experience?

Iliana: My work now is a bit more structured and better defined than in my PhD because I don’t have to figure out from scratch how to develop any novel research. It also has more impact because the results from it could be used to develop early diagnostic tests for lung cancer in non-smokers and Barrett’s oesophagus. There is a lot less pressure as well because the success of a project does not depend only on you (and you don’t have to write 100 pages of novel research).

In fact, most of the projects you work on during your postdoc are collaborative so you rarely work on your own, which is a nice change from PhD. However, that comes with a bit less freedom over the choosing the projects as they depend largely on what research priorities your supervisor has.

And, there is no transferrable skills paperwork you need to fill in! :D

If I could change one thing about my postdoc at the BDI, it would be the open space architecture of the building. Although it offers opportunities to meet people from other research groups, there are often events going in the Atrium which can be quite distracting.


So I know that along with some of your BDI colleagues, you have started developing a women’s health app. Can you tell us more about this project please?

Iliana: I have been working, together with Anna and Maíre from my lab, on developing a biomarker test that describes a woman’s current fertility. The multiple measurements we obtain from this test will provide women with personalised fertility baseline and will be used to detect potentially significant deviations from it. This will enable women to track their fertility status over time, and will empower them with the ability to make better informed life decisions. We will also create an online platform that will use the relevant data collected from the app to provide assistance and connect women with GPs and gynaecologists to discuss results. 

This project is being carried out independently of the BDI. We’ve been developing this idea for a few months now, as part of a start-up competition in Oxford. In this competition, we’ve managed to connect with specialists from different areas – business development, UX design, IP; and that helped us improve our business plan and strategy. We decided to take the start-up route because a lot of research in academia takes years to be translated into practice, and in industry this process is a lot faster. So let’s see how this goes!


That is fantastic Iliana! Do you think you’ll be staying in cancer research after your postdoc?

Iliana: I think so! Towards the end of my postdoc, I am going to start applying for fellowships in early cancer detection because I am interested in studying early detection and prevention of cancers of unmet need such as lung cancer and oesophageal cancer.


Do you have any words of wisdom for the current MathSys students for their PhD or for their careers after in academia/industry?


  • Try to maintain a good work-life balance because looking after yourself is the most important.
  • Write up (and back up) any research and analysis you do as you go.
  • Do an internship in industry during your PhD so that you can get a feel of what working in industry is like (and have a break from your PhD).
  • Don’t spend too much time on trying to perfect your thesis. The best thesis is a finished thesis.
  • Take a break between your PhD and starting a new job.
  • Don’t be afraid to apply for jobs outside your area of expertise.


Thank you so much Iliana for taking out some time to talk to us. From all of us at MathSys, we wish you lots of luck and success!

Iliana's typical work day GIFs

9am: BDI has a flexi-time work policy. I usually get in around 9am and make coffee, catch up with people from the lab and reply to urgent emails.

After 9am before lunch: I get on with any analysis that needs to be done for the projects I am working on.

Lunch time: Lunch with the team at the BDI canteen and then a (long) coffee break.

After lunch: Back to working on my projects - usually this involves using different bioinformatics tools to study genomic changes and mutational processes, running jobs on the BDI cluster, fixing bugs, developing pipelines to automate the workflows.

6pm: End of day! Go home!


by Aditi Shenvi