Postdoc Spotlight

University of Maryland, College Park
Thirumalai Biophysics Group

Q: What field is your PhD in? How did you specialize in biophysics?

My PhD was in statistical physics, working with A. Nihat Berker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I concentrated on theories of phase transitions and critical phenomena. My first exposure to biophysics was during postdoctoral research with Roland Netz at the Technical University of Munich, and then with Dave Thirumalai at the University of Maryland. They have been very good guides in my move from the relatively orderly world of electrons and spins to the messiness of living matter.

Q: What is your current research project?

My work with Dave looks at various facets of protein dynamics and function. At the single-molecule level, we have been interested in what can be precisely learned from force-induced unfolding of proteins in optical traps. Collaborating with Matthias Rief, we have developed techniques to accurately extract energy landscapes and transition rates from measurements. We have also been applying polymer ideas to understand the design principles controlling the motility of motor proteins like Myosin V. At a larger scale, protein enzymes like kinases and phosphatases form elaborate signaling cascades, and we study how these networks can optimally transmit information.

Q: What skills and experiences have you gained/do you hope to gain from your postdoc position?

After a “traditional” physics background, doing a postdoc in biophysics is a rapid initiation into another culture. I’ve been lucky to have an advisor like Dave, who keeps me focused on the big picture: how to translate theory into something that can be concretely useful for the experimentalist in the lab.These are of course lofty goals that one approaches through a series of steps and missteps, but it has been a fun journey.

Q: Tell us about a great experience or opportunity you’ve had in the past year?

It may seem like a small thing, but the first time you plot the theory vs. experimental comparison, and the curves match the dots without too much wishful thinking, that’s a very good feeling. Modeling can be a frustrating endeavor, particularly for a system like Myosin V, where your initial drafts of a theory often seem cartoonish compared to the wonderfully detailed picture drawn by single molecule experiments over the last decade. So, when the model begins to resemble reality (despite being balanced precariously on the shoulders of many spherical cows) there is a mini-eureka moment. You feel like you have gained a glimpse into the usually inscrutable workings of nature.

Q: If you were not a biophysicist, what would you be?

One of the unexpected side-effects of TA’ing was that I discovered I enjoyed teaching. Switching roles from student to instructor makes you far more appreciative of those few individuals from your past who could really inspire passion in their subjects. I could happily attempt to emulate them, as a high school teacher in physics or mathematics.

Dave Thirumalai, Michael’s PI says:

Mike, an extraordinary scientist, who trained in theoretical physics, has turned his attention to solving important problems in biophysics. In short order he has used his vast theoretical and computational skills by making original contributions in single molecule force spectroscopy, quantitatively describing complex pathways in the stepping of molecular motors, and more recently effect of noise on signaling networks. These contributions in diverse areas are sure to have profound effect on experimentalists. It is remarkable that he has been able to achieve these goals in a very short time.

June 2013 Table of Contents