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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

SU physicist earns prestigious Simons Fellowship

M. Cristina Marchetti is using award to study active matter

May 8, 2013, by Rob Enslin

M. Cristina Marchetti
M. Cristina Marchetti
M. Cristina Marchetti, The William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Physics in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been named a 2013 Simons Fellow. She will use the prestigious award, valued at nearly $129,000, to help underwrite a yearlong sabbatical to study theoretical modeling of active matter. Additional support comes from SU and The College. 

The highlight of Marchetti’s sabbatical is a four-month workshop that she is co-organizing at The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This fellowship is a tremendous honor for The College and The University,” says Vice Chancellor and Provost Eric Spina. “Professor Marchetti is a world leader in theoretical physics, particularly in non-equilibrium statistical physics, condensed matter theory, and biological physics. We are delighted that through the generous support of the Simons Foundation, she will expand her research by fostering collaborations with other scientists around the world.”

Marchetti is co-organizing the workshop with Iain Couzin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University; Sriram Ramaswamy, director of the TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences in Hyderabad (India); and Christoph Schmidt, professor of physics at the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen (Germany).

Together, they will engage with more than 120 participants, at various intervals, from around the globe.

“Experiments in active matter are developing at a rapid pace,” says Peter Saulson, the Martin A. Pomerantz ’37 Professor of Physics at SU. “Professor Marchetti’s workshop will reinforce The College’s role as a leader in cutting-edge physics research, while achieving unity in a diverse and growing field.” Saulson also chairs the Department of Physics.

Marchetti intends to use the workshop—and the rest of her sabbatical, for that matter—to learn more about how objects convert energy to movement. Subjects to be examined range in size from cytoskeletons, cells, and tissues to insect swarms, bird flocks, and fish schools. “My goal is to identify a universal behavior in this broad class of internally driven systems,” she says.

Marchetti is no stranger to KITP, having served as a member and chaired its advisory board.  In her new capacity, she will organize one of the first extended programs on active matter.

“We will bring together some of the biggest names within a highly interdisciplinary environment,” says Marchetti, an SU faculty member since 1987. “We want to ensure the participation of experimentalists and field workers, alike, as progress in this field requires close integration of theory, modeling, and observation.”

Among the participants will be theoretical and experimental physicists and chemists, biologists, engineers, and applied mathematicians.

With all the recent developments in condensed matter physics and the life sciences, Marchetti says the “time is ripe” for a concerted study of the physics of active systems. “These systems are fairly disparate and exhibit a range of large and small phenomena,” she says, referring to swarming, non-equilibrium disorder-order transitions, mesoscopic patterns, anomalous fluctuations, and surprising mechanical properties. “We plan to survey what research has been done thus far, address central broad questions, and then identify areas for future breakthroughs.”

The rest of Marchetti’s sabbatical will be divided between time at SU and at the institutions of a few close collaborators. She is particularly proud of her SU research group, which studies emergent behavior of soft and biological materials that are driven out of equilibrium by an external drive, internal activity, or quenched disorder. “We use theory and computation to investigate the rich dynamics of a broad range of systems,” she says, referring to vibrated granular matter, bacterial suspensions, cell cytoskeleton, and living tissue.

Her group currently includes one postdoc and three graduate students who are working on projects spanning from collective cell motion, to jamming and glassy dynamics of active systems, to swimmers and rotors in viscous fluids.

“Our work makes complementary use of bottom-up modeling and top-down phenomenology to highlight the role of physical interactions, relative to genetically and biochemically regulated signaling, in controlling the large-scale structural organization and mechanical properties of these complex systems,” she says.

In other words, they look at the kind of behavior that emerges when objects begin interacting with one another and consuming energy.

Marchetti is one of the leading lights of SU’s Department of Physics. In addition to her Kenan Professorship, she is a fellow of the American Physical Society and is associate director of the Syracuse Biomaterials Institute, whose foci range from applied biomaterials research (e.g., cells, tissues, and organs) to interactions between biological matter and non-living materials. Her many honors and awards include the Chancellor’s Citation for Academic Achievement and a Rotschild-Mayent Sabbatical Fellowship at the Institut Curie in Paris (France).