Each summer, more than 30 Nobel Laureates from diverse fields gather in Lindau, Germany to talk about some of the toughest issues facing the world today. This month, Illinois Physics grad student, K. Michael Martini, will be among the 402 young researchers from around the world that have the opportunity to meet and learn from these noted scientists at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Martini is the only representative from the University of Illinois at this year’s meeting and his attendance is funded by a highly competitive travel award that is sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“I'm really happy that I got accepted, I think it's an amazing opportunity to get to meet both the Nobel Laureates and the other student delegates,” Martini said. “It will be so cool to listen to someone at the top of the field talking about what they find exciting in the field. I know I won't be familiar with most of what they talk about but just being exposed to those ideas is important.”
Each year, the meeting focuses on one of the three traditional hard sciences – physiology/medicine, chemistry, and physics. The theme of this year’s meeting is Physics but the conference traditionally draws a multi-disciplinary audience. This suits Martini well. His work in Nigel Goldenfeld’s lab is at the intersection of physics and biology.
“I've always wanted to know more about what's happening in the world. My father is a physicist as well, he had some really cool demos when I was young, which I thought were so cool - they looked like magic tricks at the time. But now I understand them. Physics gives me the chance to explore more about the world,” Martini said.
He became interested in potential applications of physics on biology when he came to graduate school at Illinois. “I think the problems are just really interesting - biology has a lot of unsolved problems. Because biology is so complex, it was hard to make good mathematical models of it, it's now at the point where it's useful to start creating these models.”
Developing these mathematical models is right up Martini’s alley. From studying how noise and fluctuations can affect a system to the dynamics of transposons or “jumping genes” to a theoretical look at bi-stability in ant foraging; mathematic models and computer simulation are at the heart of his work in Goldenfeld’s lab.
The diversity of problems was what initially drew Martini to Goldenfeld’s lab. “The diversity of projects was really exciting, as was the style of research. It’s a very small group and he (Goldenfeld) works in a close collaboration with each of his students. Our group meetings can last several hours and we have them once a week,” Martini said. “There’s a lot of collaborative work that goes on in those groups. Everyone knows where everyone else is and receives very good feedback from each other. I like that collaborative nature of the work.”
Goldenfeld concurs: "The complexity of the emerging field of biological physics, whose frontier has expanded away from molecular biology towards populations and collective effects, requires intense collaboration, diverse perspectives informed by ideas from condensed matter physics, and especially the willingness to get one's hands dirty with biological details. Michael has been a true joy to work with - actively embracing this exciting new field and its demands, and contributing to my research group his creativity, probing questions, and exceptional mathematical and computational skills."
Eventually, Martini hopes to take what he’s learned in lab and graduate school and give back as a faculty member at a university of college. “I enjoy doing research but I find that I enjoy teaching even more. I just feel it's really exciting to be able to convey new concepts for the first time or the second time at a higher level to students,” he said. “I feel like I'm giving back more, that I have an impact on the students that is sometimes more immediate and measurable than research which is long term and fun. When I'm, teaching and something clicks for the first time in a student, I can watch their face and see wow - they really get it, and that's a really nice experience.”