Zena Hadjivasiliou

Way to go Frank! And thanks to all the students for the fun questions!

Favourite Thing: Be creative, exploring crazy and unconventional ideas, changing mine and other people’s mind about the way nature works



University of Cambridge (2004-2007), Stanford University (2007-2009), UCL (2009-now)


BA Mathematics, MSc Statistics, MRes Modelling biological complexity, PhD Mathematical Biology

Work History:

I’ve worked as an intern in Deloitte over a summer when I was an undergraduate, which was interesting but not my cup of tea;]. I also worked at the media library when I was studying at Stanford in California. That was really cool as I got to find out about lots of interesting films and get to know how archives work. I also did some marking for my department at Stanford, and have done lots of tutoring in maths, physics and statistics.

Current Job:

Research Fellow (this means I am doing science research most of my time at work)


University College London

Me and my work

I like to use equations to explain fascinating patterns that we see in nature, like the spirals on the shells of snails and the stripes on zebras. I am also interested in the differences between male and female sexual cells and their evolution.

My work right now is centred around  the evolution of the sexes. In sexual reproduction two individuals come together to produce a new and unique individual. But why do we need males and females to have sexual reproduction? Even tiny creatures that you can only see under the microscope have some form of males and females. In fact, some of them have more than two sexes. I was surprised to find out that a species of fungus has more than 20 000 different sexes! I am trying to understand why it is that sexual reproduction cannot happen when the two individuals that come together show no differences at all in their behaviour. I use a lot of equations and computer programming to help me understand these questions.

I also use equations and computer coding to understand patterns that we see in living organisms. For example, one of my projects is about the patterns we can see on the skin of flies when we look under the microscope.

My Typical Day

I do a lot of reading, thinking and computer coding!

I spend time coming up with equations that can help us think about biological problems! I often write computer programs to solve them and spend most of my time trying to understand what the program and equations mean. I also talk to other people a lot, it really helps me think:). I also begun studying philosophy  to help me understand the way in which I am thinking and how to best develop scientific work and understand the world around us.

What I'd do with the money

I would arrange a day long meeting at University College London for students. The activities of the day will be about the evolution of the sexes.

I think that the question of the evolution of the sexes is one that would be useful to talk to young people about. It seems like the line between the sexes becomes increasingly blurred the more we study them and researchers are changing the way they think about this. What are the factors that determine whether an individual (a person, an animal or a flower!) is male or female? And is this classification, where an individual has to be male or female sufficient? Although scientists are making a lot of progress in understanding these questions and moving away of the traditional idea of binary sexes (males and females), these ideas are less popular in our society in general.

If I win the money I would like to organise a day long gathering at UCL (the university where I work at the centre of London) for students to discuss questions to do with sex determination with scientists and amongst themselves. I will arrange for myself and other scientists to give short talks that could help keep you guys up to date with what we know about the sexes and the way in which sex is determined from a biological perspective. There will be games and activities to give you guys the chance to participate actively 😉


We also have a fly laboratory where we study male and female flies. These are special species of flies called “stalked eyed flies” and males and females of this species look pretty different which is a cool topic to study! I would do my best to include a tour of the fly lab in the visit 🙂

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Energetic, curious and (the boring one) organised

Who is your favourite singer or band?

If I had to pick just one it would be Arthur Russell, he’s a super talented musician — check him out!

What's your favourite food?

I love fish! My favourite is grilled octopus, yummmmy!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

I went scuba diving in the Pacific and ended up in the company of a couple of baby seals : )

What did you want to be after you left school?

I wanted to study and learn more about mathematics which I always found charming and fascinating

Were you ever in trouble at school?

I was yes… Pretty badly when I was about 14. Everyone goes through their phases!

What was your favourite subject at school?


What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I changed the way other scientists, and myself, think of some problems…. only a little bit though!

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

A curiosity about the beautiful shapes and patterns we see in nature and my love of mathematics

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

A teacher

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

To have the funds to lead my own research forever (!), to be able to move between places instantly (is this a legit wish?!), always remember to see the positive side to things ;]

Tell us a joke.

What did zero say to eight? ——> Nice belt!!!

Other stuff

Work photos: