Faces of the Foundation: Ned Wingreen

Faces of the Foundation
posted: 5/14/2018
listed in Faces of the Foundation

“I had a wonderful time in graduate school as a result of the Hertz Fellowship,” says Ned Wingreen. Free to explore new research directions at the cutting edge of condensed matter physics, he built a career mathematically describing the properties of exotic new materials. But in the last two decades, the former quantum physicist has reoriented himself towards theoretical biology, exploring the “wiring” of bacteria and the interaction between microbial communities with the same careful, quantitative approach as he brought to the interactions between electrons in semiconductors.

Flexibility has always been a fundamental component of Wingreen’s research career. As an undergraduate at Caltech, he had taken up an interest in plasma physics, but by the time he entered graduate school in 1984, he felt that the field had matured beyond the point where he could make a basic scientific contribution.

“I had a sense that I needed to do something with relevance to society and technology,” says Wingreen, but it didn’t have to be plasma physics. But at the time, he was reading about the field of condensed matter physics, where new quantum physics phenomena were being observed in the structure of semiconductors – phenomena which had previously only been theorized. “That blew my mind, and I decided this was something I wanted to work on.”

Wingreen’s Hertz Fellowship enabled him to take a position in the lab of Cornell professor John Wilkins, studying the electronic properties of these mind-blowing materials. By collaborating closely with experimental physicists – who were producing and examining new materials in the very same building where Wingreen was deriving their theoretical properties – he was able to keep his theoretical work closely tied with experimental reality.

At the time, he says, “We had so many basic physics and basic science questions, but they weren’t going to stay on paper.”

For most of the first 15 years after his fellowship, Wingreen worked as a researcher at NEC Research Institute, and its successor, NEC Labs, but his research interests were anything but static in that time. In the early 1990’s, Wingreen recalls being introduced to a question that biologists have long struggled with: how are proteins, the molecular machines that direct almost all of our cell’s chemical processes, assembled and folded from one-dimensional strings of their amino acid building blocks?

Wingreen was excited by the new problem. “I don’t know anything about biology, but this looks like physics,” he remembers thinking. Thanks to the flexibility that NEC allowed him, Wingreen began attending biology conferences and working with biologists, to find and solve interesting theoretical problems in biology.

Like condensed matter physics during Wingreen’s PhD, it was clear that biology was an open field full of problems calling out for theorists. “At that point, there weren’t many theoretical biophysicists. So there were infinitely more problems than people.” In addition to protein folding, Ned began studying problems from how cholera bacteria communicate to bring about an infection to the physical limits of biological sensors.

In 2004, Wingreen joined the department of Molecular Biology at Princeton, where he could continue researching these problems – and teach a new generation of theoretical biologists. In 2008, he joined Princeton’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, where, he says, he can pursue “truly interdisciplinary” work, collaborating with biologists, chemists, neuroscientists, and other physicists. With fellow Lewis-Sigler professor David Botstein, Wingreen began developing a seminar in “Method and Logic” for young biologists. The course was motivated, says Wingreen, by a sense that “there are so many facts in biology. Instead of teaching all of them, can we teach the students how we learn things?”

Today, the Lewis-Sigler Institute manages both a graduate program in quantitative and computational biology and an undergraduate course of study, the integrated sciences curriculum, which introduces freshman and sophomores to biology from the perspective of physics, chemistry, math, and computer science. A rotating group of professors and other instructors, teach the undergraduate curriculum, which has produced new Hertz Fellows such as Cameron Myhrvold and Jim Valcourt. “He is a phenomenal teacher!” says Myhrvold, who also took Wingreen’s Method and Logic seminar. “Ned also gave me very useful mentorship as I worked on my senior thesis.”

Today, Wingreen has no fear his new-chosen field will run out of questions for a theorist like him to bring fresh perspective to. “There’s no lack of interesting problems.”