The many friends and colleagues of Steve Le Comber were devastated to learn of his untimely and sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 53. As an evolutionary and mathematical biologist with a huge passion for teaching, outreach and public engagement, it is a great personal loss for many and leaves an irreplaceable absence in the Organismal Biology Department of Queen Mary University of London where Steve had spent most of the last twenty four years. Steve’s work covers a wide range of subjects within evolutionary biology, including mathematical and computer models of molecular evolution and studies of spatial patterns in biology, notably in epidemiology and invasive species biology but with much of it focusing on the mathematics of spatial patterns. Steve was very active in public engagement and outreach delivering hundreds of talks to schools at science festivals and other venues, including our local St Paul’s Way trust school where he contributed talks every year with Brian Cox. He was a much loved lecturer and colleague, and is missed by both students and staff.
Before moving into science, Steve had a successful career as a journalist from 1984 to 1995, first for DC Thomson in his home town of Dundee, writing for Jackie magazine (including a stint as fiction editor), and undertaking sports reporting for their local and national newspapers. Later, he moved to London and among other things was Sub-Editor for Woman’s Own and Production Editor on Prima magazine (which at the time was selling over 1 million copies), as well as freelance work writing for Best and Bella magazines, and editing a young person’s magazine for the Sunday Times.
By 1995 Steve had come to the conclusion that he wanted to move into science writing. A passion for science was already in the family – his father Peter Le Comber FRS was a well known and respected solid state physicist. In order to achieve his goal, Steve decided that he needed more formal training and enrolled for a degree in the School of Biological Sciences at what was then Queen Mary and Westfield College. As a highly motivated and enthusiastic student, he was immediately successful, winning the Bevan Prize for outstanding academic achievement in biological sciences in 1996 and the Elizabeth Hocart Prize in Botany and Westfield Trust Prize in 1998. Steve graduated with a First Class degree in Ecology and Genetics in 1998, soon returning to Queen Mary to undertake a PhD, supervised by Carl Smith and Chris Faulkes on “Alternative male mating tactics in the three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus” (2003). This involved arduous field work (which Steve soon came to love) floating in Scottish streams observing fish for many hours, to the bemusement of the locals. Equally entertaining was the work with lab-based experimental stickleback populations, established in a system of around 12 paddling pools set up to observe the fish mating in controlled situations, and in the process depleting the local area of children’s inflatable pools. The first paper from his PhD was subsequently published in the Journal of Zoology (Le Comber et al., 2003). Although Steve only worked on fish for a relatively short time, a spin off project into a new area on polyploidy in fish is his most accessed paper, with over 150 citations at the time of writing (Le Comber and Smith, 2004).
Steve began working with Chris Faulkes as early as 1998, whilst he was still in his final year of undergraduate studies, offering invaluable proofreading and editing advice, skills honed during his time as a journalist. At this time Steve came up with the idea of using the mathematics of fractals to measure the branching complexity and shape of mole-rat burrows, and this was to be the subject of his first publication (Le Comber et al., 2002), and several more followed on this topic which have been well cited – including two published in Journal of Zoology (Le Comber et al., 2004, 2006a; Sichilima et al., 2008; Thomas et al., 2009). Steve remained close to the African mole-rat research world, making invaluable contributions to several other publications (Faulkes et al., 2010; Katandukila et al., 2014), and joining several field trips in South Africa in the company of Journal of Zoology’s Editor in Chief, Nigel Bennett. These were always great adventures and those that knew Steve will be familiar with tales of accidentally becoming involved with some hair-raising quad biking in the Drakensberg Mountains, and digging holes under the perimeter fence of a medium security prison looking for mole-rats (with the last minute permission of the prison governor)!
Keeping with the theme of shape analysis, Steve went on to undertake post doctoral work on bats and the evolution of their tooth shape with Queen Mary lecturer and Palaeontologist David Polly (Polly et al., 2005), and analysis of bat pedigrees and mating systems (Rossiter et al., 2005). With a rapidly expanding publication record and range of collaborations and project ideas, Steve was successful in becoming appointed as a Lecturer in Anatomy at Queen Mary in 2006 and senior lecturer in 2013. He was fully immersed in teaching and outreach, and for many years was hugely successful as the SBCS Senior admissions tutor. He thoroughly enjoyed teaching on field trips, which he viewed as holidays! Between 2008 and 2016 he also served on the editorial board of the Journal of Zoology.
Once appointed as a lecturer, Steve pioneered the introduction of geographic profiling – a statistical technique originally developed to prioritise the investigation of serial murders – to a wide range of topics in biology. This came about from a chance acquaintance arising from a seminar invitation to Canadian ex-policeman Kim Rossmo, who originally developed the technique of geographic profiling in criminology. Steve further advanced the mathematics underlying the model, introducing a Bayesian Dirichlet Process Mixture (DPM) suitable for cases with large, unknown numbers of sources. In other studies, he used geographic profiling to investigate the source of invasive species, disease outbreaks and wildlife crime (Le Comber et al., 2006b; Le Comber et al., 2011; Le Comber and Stevenson et al., 2012; Verity et al., 2014; Faulkner et al., 2015, 2017). These wide–ranging and varied applications really became the keystone of Steve’s research, but his ingenuity and an eye for an interesting story meant that often these cases highlighted his ability to think outside the box. He used the same underlying mathematics in some surprising applications – from a Second World War British Secret Service operation designed to deceive the Germans about the accuracy of the V-2 rocket bombardment on London (Aygin et al., 2019), to helping to identify Banksy (Hague et al., 2015) or understanding the origins of London’s ring-necked parakeets (Heald et al., 2019).
Outside of science, Steve devoured fiction and non-fiction books at an astonishing rate, often at the rate of one every day or two, and was able to quote verbatim favourite passages years later. He was equally enthusiastic about music and regularly attended a variety of concerts and venues, although his favourite genre was punk rock, and favourite venue the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where many a happy night was spent. His zest for life was unparallelled, and his infectious joy for every second of every day is sorely missed. Steve is survived by his wife Liz and two daughters, Rachel and Eleanor.
“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”
― Charles Darwin
C. G. Faulkes, and S. C. Faulkner
School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, London, UK
Aygin DT, Cox LA, Faulkner SC, Stevens MCA, Verity R and Le Comber SC. (2019). Double cross: geographic profiling of V-2 impact sites. Journal of Spatial Science. DOI: 10.1080/14498596.2019.1642249.
Faulkes CG, Mgode GF, Le Comber SC and Bennett NC. 2010. Cladogenesis and endemism in Tanzanian mole-rats, genus Fukomys (Family: Bathyergidae): A role for tectonics? Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society 100, 337-352.
Faulkner SC, Stevenson MD, Verity R, Mustari AH, Semple S, Tosh DG and Le Comber SC. 2015. Using geographic profiling to locate elusive nocturnal animals: A case study with spectral tarsiers. Journal of Zoology 295, 261-268.
Faulkner SC, Verity R, Roberts D, Roy SS, Robertson PA, Stevenson MD and Le Comber SC 2017. Using geographic profiling to compare the value of sightings vs trap data in a biological invasion. Diversity and Distributions 23, (1) 104-112.
Hauge MV, Stevenson MD, Rossmo DK et al. (2016). Tagging Banksy: using geographic profiling to investigate a modern art mystery. Journal of Spatial Science 61,185-190.
Heald OJN, Fraticelli C, Cox SE, Stevens MCA, Faulkner SC, Blackburn, TM and Le Comber SC 2019. Understanding the origins of the ring-necked parakeet in the UK. Journal of Zoology.
Katandukila JV, Chimimba CT, Bennett NC, Makundi RH, Le Comber SC and Faulkes CG. 2014. Journal of Zoology 293, 271-280.
Le Comber SC, Spinks AC, Bennett NC, Jarvis JUM and Faulkes CG. 2002. Fractal dimension of African mole-rat burrows. Canadian Journal of Zoology 80, 436-441.
Le Comber SC, Smith C, Faulkes CG and Formosinho J. 2003. Response of territorial males to the threat of sneaking in the three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus. Journal of Zoology 261, 15-20.
Le Comber SC, Faulkes CG, Van Look KJW, Holt WV and Smith C. 2004. Recovery of activity in osmotically shocked stickleback sperm: implications for pre-oviposition ejaculation. Behaviour 141, 1555-1569.
Le Comber SC and Smith C. 2004. Polyploidy in fishes: patterns and processes. Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society 82, 431-442.
Le Comber SC, Seabloom EW and Romañach SS. 2006a. Burrow fractal dimension and foraging success in subterranean rodents: a simulation. Behavioural Ecology 17, 188-195.
Le Comber SC, Nicholls B, Rossmo DK and Racey PA. 2006b. Geographic profiling and animal foraging. Journal of Theoretical Biology 240, 233-240.
Le Comber SC, Rossmo DK, Hassan AN, Fuller DO and Beier JC. 2011. Geographic profiling as a novel spatial tool for targeting infectious disease control. International Journal of Health Geographics 10, 35.
Le Comber SC and Stevenson MD. 2012. From Jack the Ripper to epidemiology and ecology. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 27, 307-308.
Polly PD, Le Comber SC and Burland TM. 2005. On the occlusal fit of tribosphenic molars: are we underestimating species diversity in the Mesozoic? Journal of Mammalian Evolution 12, 283-299.
Rossiter SJ, Ransome RD, Faulkes CG, Le Comber SC and Jones G. 2005. Mate fidelity and intra-lineage polygyny in greater horseshoe bats. Nature 437, 408-411.
Sichillima A, Bennett NC, Faulkes CG and Le Comber SC. 2008. Evolution of African mole-rat sociality: burrow architecture, rainfall and foraging in colonies of the cooperatively breeding Fukomys mechowii. Journal of Zoology 275, 276-282.
Thomas HG, Bateman PW, Le Comber SC, Bennett NC, Elwood RW and Scantlebury M. 2009. Burrow architecture and digging activity in the Cape dune mole rat. Journal of Zoology 279, 277-284.
Verity R, Stevenson MD, Rossmo DK, Nichols RA and Le Comber SC. 2014. Spatial targeting of infectious disease control: identifying multiple, unkown sources. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 5, 647-655.