What do Ramen noodles, knots, and genome globules have in common? If you’re researcher Erez Lieberman Aiden, these are models for his groundbreaking research on 3-D mapping the human genome. At the end of the day, he shares advice and wisdom with aspiring young scientists. His connections to TED and Google lend a “cool” factor to mathematics, too.
Erez isn’t exactly your everyday researcher. Erez is a fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and Visiting Faculty at Google. His research has won numerous awards, including a $2.5 million National Institute of Health New Innovator Award, the GE and Science Prize for Young Life Scientists, the Lemelson-MIT prize for best student inventor at MIT, and the American Physical Society’s Award for the Best Doctoral Dissertation in Biological Physics. His research is recognized as one of the top 20 “Biotech Breakthroughs that will Change Medicine” by Popular Mechanics. Technology Review’s 2009 TR35 recognizes Erez as one of the top 35 innovators under 35. If that isn’t enough, his last three research articles all appeared on the cover of Nature and Science magazines.
Many Google fans might be familiar with Erez’s research on how the English language changes over time. Google’s Ngram tool is based on his research. In fact, his talk on the subject is a TED Talk. Lately, though, Erez’s research involves how to locate specific bits of the human genome within a cell. The genome is an organism’s instruction set for how to build a new organism from scratch.
To learn how the genome folds up so tightly within a cell, Erez processes genome material into bits and then places it into a solvent. In the solvent, the genome folds up into a round 3-D globule whose bits are miniature replicas of the whole. Thus, a better name for these globules is a fractal globule. Erez’s goal is to figure out which parts of the globule touch other parts in order to map the precise location of every bit of the globule.
To explain his thinking, Erez compares the behavior of the folded up genome within the cell to Ramen noodles folded up within a cellophane package. Using a polymer physics model and work done by Joseph Peano and David Hilbert, Erez explains how Ramen noodles model his genome globule. Who knew?
Did you know that when cooked and unfolded, Ramen noodles stretch 170 feet? If they are not stirred excessively, the noodles unfold completely unknotted. Amazingly, these noodles model the genome globules behavior. Apparently, remaining unknotted is key to folding and unfolding the genome.
Erez’s advice to budding scientists and mathematicians:
Don’t be afraid to fail, but strive to do well in whatever you pursue. He also encourages young people to fail often until they find something that gives them great confidence and satisfaction.
Erez admits that, as a child, he wasn’t a standout student. In fact, he didn’t find his passion for mathematics and physics until he entered graduate school. He attributes his early success in publishing scientific papers as a graduate student as his biggest motivator. With the help of Ramen noodles, knots, and genome globules, Erez Lieberman Aiden is quietly changing the world and the perception of mathematics and science–he’s making them both cool!