Graduate Citings: Tales from the Field – Taylor Firman

TaylorFirmanPictureWelcome to your last full month of summer vacation pios! We hope you’ve had a wonderful break and look forward to seeing your lovely faces this fall. To conclude your summer break, and get those synapses firing for Fall Quarter, we’d like to share with you the intriguing work of PhD student Taylor Firman. Taylor is exploring examining randomness in gene networks in order to shed light on previously unexplored areas of research in quantitative biology. We hope you enjoy this month’s Graduate Citings and be sure to check out Taylor’s video at the end!

Researcher: Taylor Firman, PhD student enrolled in the Molecular & Cellular Biophysics Program, active in the Physics Department

Initial Inspiration: Growing up, I was fairly obsessed with math puzzles (my mom used to catch me writing multiplication tables in the fog of our car windows), but these skills just seemed like neat parlor tricks until I took a high school physics course. To see how the fundamental nature of the world around us could be described using the basest of languages, mathematics, was fascinating and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Current Research: My current research is generally focused on the computational modeling of biology. For instance, in a previous project, we were able to recreate how a fruit fly takes its elongated shape within the embryo using computer simulations. More recently, we have been looking at the role of randomness and fluctuation within gene networks to see how they affect the overall behavior of the system. Biology is a very rich subject matter and the mathematical approach of a physicist can help to shed light on previously unexplored areas of the field.

As of this point, our research involving randomness in gene networks has been published in the Journal of Chemical Physics and we are hoping to publish more recent developments about a principle called Maximum Caliber in the next year. A manuscript about our work on simulating fruit fly morphology is working its way through the submission process and will hopefully be published within the next year as well. Ultimately, we hope that these papers and the concepts behind them will help to inform experimentalists on new directions of questioning and shed light on previously unexplored areas of research in quantitative biology.

Collaborators: My research advisor is Dr. Kingshuk Ghosh within the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and in the past couple of years, we have worked very closely with Dr. Dinah Loerke (Physics) and Dr. Todd Blankenship (Biology) here at DU.

Biggest Challenge: Thus far, my biggest challenge was coming to the realization that cutting-edge science is never going to be a straight line from idea A to idea B like it’s portrayed in scientific literature. A biophysicist named Uri Alon described it perfectly as traveling through “the cloud between the known and the unknown.” Experiments are going to fail or produce data contrary to what you would expect and it will be necessary to take multiple detours to get to a new and innovative idea. This doesn’t make you a bad scientist. To get through this cloud, it requires patience, time, and lots of support from the people around you, things I’ve been lucky enough to find here at DU.

Research Advice: As I touched on earlier, my advice to future graduate students would be to realize that research truly is like “traveling through a cloud.” Equipment is going to break, ideas are going to fall apart, frustration will set in, but realize that this is all part of the process of generating innovative ideas. Enjoy the investigative nature of research, have faith in your capabilities, and stay the course.

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