I want my students to elevate their mathematical skills and physics logic, which will elevate their capability to put different pieces of a puzzle together.

JiaJia Dong

Examining biology from a physics perspective expanded the research horizon for Professor JiaJia Dong, physics & astronomy, just after she finished her doctoral degree. She had been pursuing a traditional theoretical physics trajectory in the field of statistical mechanics when the opportunity to work with a biologist emerged.

"We were investigating the effect of X-rays on the development of frog embryos. I was involved in a project looking for the quantitative link between radiation and embryo apoptosis, and I found it really interesting. Now when I pick a project, I try to find ideas that may get experts in other disciplines excited as well," Dong says. Her current research focuses on the regulation processes in bacteria and modeling protein synthesis.

"The inside of each cell is crowded with many molecules. Every 30 minutes or so, they divide and the genetic information is passed on. I want to understand how this mechanism is being regulated in a micron-sized object. I want to know about the resources each individual cell needs to produce in its lifetime to accurately reproduce itself," she says. "I'm interested in the ways physics can help us quantitatively understand living organisms."

The interdisciplinary interest is also leading Dong and her Bucknell colleagues to incorporate more biophysics courses into the curriculum. "There is a growing community at the interface of physics, mathematics and biology. We are investigating the possibility of an interdisciplinary curriculum that will excite students with such interest," she says.

Studying biology through a physics lens will add more dimension to student research, Dong says. "Students will learn quantitative analysis, which can be applied broadly. The physics required for modeling protein synthesis in a cell can be used for other areas of study. For instance, the same model used to analyze a protein synthesis process is applicable, with modification, to study traffic patterns and how fast cars are moving on a highway. That gives students the idea of how broad physics principles really are and how they can be applied to many different systems. I want my students to elevate their mathematical skills and physics logic, which will elevate their capability to put different pieces of a puzzle together."

Posted Sept. 30, 2015 

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