My research focuses on trying to understand biological systems as solutions to computational problems. Biology has traditionally focused on understanding the “what” and “how” – “what” the physical basis of hereditary information is, “how” energy is stored and used by organisms, “what” activities various regions of the brain are involved in, and so on. While this constitutes an interesting and important part of science, my own interests are in “why” these particular “whats” and “hows” have emerged. Stated another way, traditional biology focuses on measuring the parameters of a system, while I am interested in explaining why we observe those particular parameters. To do so, I attempt to understand the particular computational problems that biological systems (from regions of the brain to organisms to collections of organisms) have evolved to solve, the relevant constraints for those systems, and the optimal solutions to these constrained optimization problems. Doing so allows us to compare observed systems to the optimal solutions – matches suggest that we now understand “why” the system is as it is, while mismatches suggest that we have either misunderstood the computational problem or constraints or that some obstacle has prevented the system from achieving optimality (e.g. a shortage of time in a new environment, the computational complexity of the problem to be solved). Either way, the results are likely to be interesting and suggest new directions for experiment and theory.
While my own work is theoretical and computational, its very important to me to maintain close ties with experiments. Thus, I do my best to both keep up with the experimental literature and to collaborate with experimental neuroscientists when possible.
My very first research interests were in quantum information theory – a subfield of physics seeking to understand the physical limits of computation and how to exploit the laws of quantum mechanics to approach those limits. Through a pair of summer schools at MIT and IQC (QuISU and USEQIP) and a pair of quantum info projects in Italy and Canada (described below), I beefed up my budding physicist muscles and came to appreciate that an information-centric view of natural systems can offer unique insights into their function. That insight, combined with inspiration from a few recent examples of fruitful collaborations between theoretical physicists and biologists, encouraged me to switch focus to biological information processing.