A Mathematician Who Decodes the Patterns Stamped Out by Life

Joshua Sokol in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2911 Dec. 21 21.34When Corina Tarnita was a budding mathematician, she found her interest in mathematics flickering, about to burn out. As a girl she had stormed through Romania’s National Mathematical Olympiad — where she won a three-peat from 1999 to 2001 — then on to Harvard University as an undergraduate and straight into its graduate school to study questions in pure mathematics.

Then suddenly, around a decade ago, it wasn’t so fun anymore. “I would still get a kick out of solving a problem,” she said. “The question is whether it was just kind of an ego kick.”

Facing a crisis of faith, Tarnita felt her future narrow to just a few paths. She had been offered a cushy “quant” job working for a bank. She could take time off. And then she found in the library an intriguing book with a colorful cover called Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. The book’s author, the mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, was, conveniently, also at Harvard. The same week she had to decide on the job, she sent him an email asking to meet.

The meeting changed her life. Tarnita turned down the job and finished her doctorate with Nowak. (She completed her Ph.D. just a year after earning her master’s degree.) She began a project with him and the legendary biologist Edward O. Wilson that led to a 2010 Nature paper on the evolution of cooperative insects like ants and termites. Since 2013, she has continued to study biology using mathematical tools as a member of the faculty at Princeton University.

Since switching fields, Tarnita has focused her work on how living things orchestrate themselves itself into patterns on different scales.

More here.