Pathways to the new biology: Greg Carter, Ph.D.
Ironically, in science today bioinformatics represents a “sky’s the limit” opportunity, while physics operates in a confined space. For Jackson Laboratory Assistant Professor Greg Carter, Ph.D., the switch to systems biology and bioinformatics from theoretical nuclear particle physics offered him “such an open space for progress” in computer modeling.
“Today’s research problems in theoretical physics go back to the 1970s,” says Carter. “As a theorist, you’re dealing with energies at levels from just after the big bang, and there’s no way to test that experimentally.” He laughs. “Well, you get those energies in supernovas. If there’s a supernova relatively nearby in our lifetimes we just might see if one of my theories about dense matter is accurate.”
Because such experiments aren’t feasible, mathematical and computer modeling has progressed far beyond actual experimentation in physics. On the other hand, in biology, where experimentation is advancing rapidly, modeling has fallen way behind, so Carter joined what he saw as a trend and shifted his focus to the new frontier of systems biology. First he modeled gene networks in yeast at the Institute for Systems Biology, then changed to mammalian systems when he moved to The Jackson Laboratory two years ago.
"In physics, you take lots of signals, lots of data points, and develop models that encode the core rules that drive those signals. In genetics here I'm trying to do the same sort of thing: take what’s basically a very messy situation—lots of data, complex biological signals—and boil it down to a few simple rules that are driving them. The rules are so undefined in biology that there’s huge space to explore new data and test models. We still don’t know how complex the models need to be."
Although his physics background has been very helpful to his work, Carter sees the path to working in bioinformatics as far more linear now than it was a decade ago. “If I knew I wanted to get into bioinformatics today, I wouldn’t start in physics. There’s more ability to focus on quantitative biology these days, even as an undergrad. Bioinformatics programs are developing quickly and now provide an entry into the field.”