With physics, you aren't necessarily learning the set of tools that you are going to use in your future career. Rather, what you are learning is the methodology of thinking, the logic of thinking, the expertise of pooling different resources together to solve a problem put in front of you.

JiaJia Dong

JiaJia Dong uses physics to better understand systems small and large

The assistant professor of physics and astronomy uses computers to simulate complex systems such as a bacterium cell, a branch of statistical mechanics that is finding more applications on the interface of physics and biology. "Inside this tiny little micron-sized cell you have thousands of genes hatched in there," she says. "Every time one cell divides, it becomes two identical daughter cells. I want to know, how does a little cell know how to do that, especially at the transcription and translation stages?" Dong uses a similar model of driven diffusive systems to design an efficient airline boarding strategy for passengers.

She shares these practical applications of physics with her students as a way of teaching them the classical and modern concepts of her discipline, recognizing that students more readily soak in information that's relevant to their lives.

"For students, it's a tangible way to think," says Dong. "They very quickly start asking interesting questions and making meaningful contributions to the project -- which is very rewarding for them. It's also rewarding for me, seeing them get excited about physics. They might take more courses and develop additional skills."

Dong says physics majors are equipped to take on various career paths -- such as teaching high school physics, researching in medical physics, or even working on Wall Street to predict stock "With physics, you aren't necessarily learning the exact set of tools that you are going to use in your future career. Rather, what you are learning is the methodology of thinking, the logic of thinking, the expertise of pooling different resources together to solve a problem put in front of you."

Posted October 2012

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