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Evolution of a Theorist

Emma Goldberg brings a background in physics to her work as a theoretical evolutionary biologist.

Emma Goldberg was wandering through a library one day when she came across a book that would literally change her life. The Song of the Dodo inspired her to leave her graduate work as a physicist and study evolutionary biology. Now, she uses mathematical models to answer questions about why species inhabit a particular geographic range, and how the various ways that plants reproduce contribute to speciation and extinction.

Q: Did your background in physics steer you toward using mathematical models and being a theoretical evolutionary biologist?

A: A little bit, but I was excited purely from the biology side. When I went to graduate school, I wanted to be a lizard wrestler [study reptiles]. Once I got there, I wound up in the lab of a renowned evolutionary theorist, and I realized that I should probably be using my math and computer skills for biology. When you use math to study biology, you have to distill very clearly what you’re asking and what you’re thinking about. Biological questions are often really, really complicated, and to make progress you need to be able to focus. There are more experimental researchers than there are theorists, but science can be really rewarding when it's a collaboration between someone who knows a natural system in great detail and someone who thinks about modeling in a more abstract way.  

Q: What are you working on that you’re most excited about?

A: I’m kind of a sucker for new ideas, so it can change weekly. But a direction I’m especially excited about is combining work on macroevolution and microevolution. I’ve looked at each separately, asking questions like, “why do we have so many species in a particular place,” versus “what sets the geographic boundary, or range limit, for a single species?” I’m starting to use my work on plant reproductive systems to connect the two scales. On the macroevolution side, we have some findings about speciation and extinction that can now be used as predictions for how things may work on the microevolution scale within populations. I’m also eager to link my work on plant mating systems and biogeography by looking at how reproductive strategies affect and are affected by geographic range.

Q: You just joined the College of Biological Sciences faculty a few months ago. What type of student might be interested in being part of your research group?

A: I’m definitely looking for students with a biology background and good quantitative skills, but I’m also very open to those who come from “non-traditional” backgrounds since that’s the way I came to biology. Students trained in physics, math and engineering are welcome, but they really have to be passionate about biology. I’m looking forward to having a group that collaborates well with other labs. Probably most of what we'll do will be theory, but I want it to be strongly connected to real biological questions and systems. I'm really looking for students who will be creative in making a little math go a long way in helping us think about ecology and evolution.

– Diedre Ribbens