Targeted Grants in the Mathematical Modeling of Living Systems: Awardees

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The Simons Foundation congratulates the investigators who were awarded a Targeted Grant in the Mathematical Modeling of Living Systems in 2016.

Vijay Balasubramanian

University of Pennsylvania

Adaptive Molecular Sensing in the Olfactory and Immune Systems

Vijay Balasubramanian was born in Bombay (Mumbai) and grew up in India and Indonesia. He earned degrees in Physics (B.Sc.) and Computer Science (B.Sc. and M.Sc.) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Ph.D. in Physics from Princeton University. After holding a postdoctoral fellowship as a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, he joined the faculty in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Pennsylvania, where he is currently the Cathy and Marc Lasry Professor. He spent the 2012–2013 year at the École normale supérieure in Paris on a fellowship from the Fondation Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. He has been a visiting professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, Rockefeller University, the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Free University of Brussels) in Belgium. As a biophysicist, he seeks to explain the fundamental principles that govern the information-processing architectures of living systems. Balasubramanian has also addressed problems in statistical inference and Occam’s razor — the trade-off between simple and accurate mathematical models — and has written extensively as a string theorist on problems in theoretical physics, such as the question of whether black holes destroy information.

Sam Brown, Howard Weiss & William Ratcliff

Georgia Institute of Technology

Collective Bacterial Decision-Making

Sam Brown is an evolutionary microbiologist, with a B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. Brown is a pioneer in the study of bacterial social interactions and their consequences for disease. His theoretical and experimental work integrates molecular microbiology with ecology, epidemiology and evolution, and centers on two themes: the evolution of sociality and the evolution of virulence. These two themes combine strongly when applied to microbial pathogens, as microbes must often communicate, coordinate and cooperate in order to successfully grow within and transmit among their hosts.

Howard Weiss is a professor of mathematics at Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also an adjunct professor of biology and global health at Emory University. His current research projects include studying the bacterial genetics and pharmacodynamics of antibiotics for bacteria growing in physically structured habitats, studying the transmission of infectious diseases in an airplane cabin and studying the dynamics of the bacterial community in the gut. Previously, Weiss made many significant contributions to the mathematical theory of dynamical systems. His most recent honors include being selected as a Georgia Power Professor of Excellence and a fellow of the American Association of Arts and Sciences. In recent years, he has taught courses in virus dynamics, population genetics, mathematical biology, dynamical systems and probability statistics.

William Ratcliff uses experimental evolution and computational approaches to study the dynamics of microbial collectives, with a specific focus on cooperation/conflict, bet hedging and the evolution of multicellularity. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in plant biology in 2004 from the University of California, Davis, and his Ph.D. in 2010 in ecology, evolution and behavior from the University of Minnesota, where he worked on the legume-rhizobium mutualism. As a postdoc at the University of Minnesota, he developed a novel model system (“snowflake yeast”) for studying the evolutionary origin of multicellularity. In 2014, he began a faculty position at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Jané Kondev

Brandeis University

Building a Proportional Cell: Design Principles of Biological Size Control

Jané Kondev is a theoretical physicist whose research focuses on cells, with the overarching goal of uncovering mathematical laws that govern living systems. He studied physics and mathematics in Serbia at the Mathematical High School and at the University of Belgrade. His research career began at Cornell University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics. After postdoctoral research at Brown University and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, he joined the faculty at Brandeis University as a professor of physics. There, initially he led a research group that focused on problems in fluctuating geometries, glassy systems and the quantum Hall effect. Subsequently he became interested in problems in cell biology and eventually his research focus completely shifted to living systems. These days his group combines theoretical and experimental approaches to study fundamental biological processes such as the transcription of genes, the assembly of cytoskeleton structures and the dynamics of chromosomes. He is one of the authors of the textbook Physical Biology of the Cell and is an Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor.

Simon A. Levin

Princeton University

A New Framework for Ecological Kinetics in Natural Environments

Simon A. Levin is the George M. Moffett Professor of Biology at Princeton University and the director of the Center for BioComplexity in the Princeton Environmental Institute. His research examines the structure and functioning of ecosystems, the dynamics of disease and the coupling of ecological and socioeconomic systems. Levin is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a foreign member of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti and the Istituto Lombardo Accademia di Scienze e Lettere (Milan). He has over 500 publications and is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Biodiversity and the Princeton Guide to Ecology. Levin’s awards include the Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences, Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, Ramon Margalef Prize for Ecology, the Ecological Society of America’s MacArthur and Eminent Ecologist Awards, the Luca Pacioli Prize (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice), the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and most recently, the National Medal of Science.  

Pankaj Mehta

Boston University


Alvaro Sanchez

Yale University

What Constrains Microbial Diversity? Deriving New Ecological Principles for the Microbial World

(Funded in conjunction with the Scialog program of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation; see here for more information.)

Pankaj Mehta works on theoretical problems at the interface of physics and biology with a focus on how large-scale, collective behavior observed in biological systems emerges from the interaction of many individual biological elements. He has a B.S. in mathematics from California Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics from Rutgers University, and did his postdoctoral work in the theoretical biophysics group at Princeton University. Since 2010, he has been a faculty member in the Department of Physics at Boston University.

Alvaro Sanchez is an assistant professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University. His laboratory uses a combination of mathematical modeling and experimental evolution to investigate the fundamental principles that govern the behavior of microbial communities. His current work is focused on understanding how the structure of microbial communities, and particularly the interactions between bacteria, determines the collective properties of these communities. His group has recently been able to domesticate hundreds of large and very diverse bacterial communities in defined minimal media, leading to a new line of work in trying to elucidate the functional roles played by the rare species in these communities. From 2013 to 2016, he was a Rowland Junior Fellow at Harvard, where his work focused on the eco-evolutionary dynamics of microbial communities. His previous appointments include a two-year postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and graduate work at Brandeis, where he graduated with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2011.