October 2002
Popular Science: Writing About S&T for the Public

Making Faster Computer Chips

When Galaxies Collide

Understanding Life by Understanding Proteins

Summer at the Bench

The Roundabout Path

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Bryn Mawr College
A quarterly newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

The Roundabout Path
By Dorothy Wright

Theodore G. Wong, the newest member of Bryn Mawr's Biology Department, is a theoretical biologist who uses evolutionary computation to understand the rules governing organisms' use of information that is stored in their environments. Wong was hired by a search committee representing biology, physics, geology and chemistry to teach computational techniques to students across scientific disciplines. His broad range of interests suits his new role. When he started college, Wong wanted to become a historian or literary scholar. By the time he completed his doctoral degree, he had explored comparative literature, neural biology, environmental law, forestry and the population dynamics of butterflies.

Theodore Wong

After earning his bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Stanford University in 1991, Wong worked for the American Civil Liberties Union for a year before pursuing a master's degree in forest science at Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He specialized in spatial and geographic models in ecology, completing a field study of the spatial distribution of tree canopy gaps in a Sri Lankan rainforest. The experience confirmed his interest in scientific research.

Taking a long shot, Wong wrote a letter to Paul Ehrlich, Stanford professor of population biology and president of the university's Center for Conservation Biology, in which he proposed modeling by computer the effect of suburbia on the connectivity among subpopulations of the checkerspot butterfly, Ehrlich's long-term research subject. He was accepted to Stanford's Ph.D. program in biological sciences, and began working with the Center for Conservation Biology. His research focus and, ultimately, his dissertation evolved into a study of architecture and resource allocation in annual plants under environmental variability.

"I've certainly taken a roundabout path," Wong muses. "I used to wonder why I wasn't able to settle on one career and one research topic when my friends seemed to be on a straight-arrow path. Now I realize that the questions of interest to me all have been different versions of the same one: how do physical systems act either as information conduits or information processors?"

Between Genome and Phenotype

Wong is interested in understanding how development mediates and constrains evolution, and how evolution in turn shapes developmental processes. In particular, he explores what he believes is the causal middle ground between the genome and the phenotype: development rules. "I am interested in detecting and inferring the rules underlying development, in describing how these rules structure and constrain phenotypic evolution, and in measuring and predicting the evolution of the rules themselves," Wong says.

Wong maintains that computers lend themselves naturally to this sort of research. He uses evolutionary computation, a method of searching the solution space for a complex answer by a process that emulates evolution by natural selection. "The computer starts with a population of randomly generated candidate solutions, and it tests them; in each of many, many iterations, it takes the best solutions and modifies them a little bit to generate new populations of solutions," Wong explains.

The Power of the Computer

Wong's use of computational techniques as his primary research methodology was key to his selection by the College's search committee. "Our number one priority was a qualified person to teach an entry-level computational course across the sciences," says Peter D. Brodfuehrer, associate professor of biology. "Science today depends on our ability to perform complicated analyses of large data sets and to pull the meaningful information out of the 'background noise.' Ted's approach to designing a basic computational course shows students the power and range of what can be done using computer modeling."

Wong has other outstanding qualifications for the position. "Ted fills a botany niche in the Biology Department," Brodfuehrer says. "He has a connection with other departments, for example, Environmental Studies and Computer Science. And his research is amenable to more undergraduate student research participation than that of the other candidates we considered."

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Wong's current research concerns the development and evolution of plant branching architecture. "Architecture is one of a plant's most important features ecologically," he says. "But nobody studies it because it is so high-dimensional: how do you describe architecture on something like a graph?"

Wong is creating a computational method for inferring the development rules that give rise to a plant's mature architecture. "The idea is to reduce the dimensionality," he explains. "Instead of talking about the evolution of the architecture of a table-shaped tree crown, for example, we can talk about the evolution of this or that development rule."

This is where undergraduate research comes in. "This research offers great opportunities for undergrads to develop theses because it they can be divided into discrete, self-contained projects; it also invites an empirical component," Wong says. "I'll be excited to have a student study whether we can computationally reflect a particular variation in a species, and to find out if any one set of rules is compatible with the variation we see. That would be a challenging, fun project for an undergraduate."

Wong also believes that computational biology is an excellent vehicle for teaching biology. "Students learn best what they figure out for themselves, and the computer can serve as a versatile, tidy little laboratory," he says.

As assistant professor of biology, this academic year Wong is teaching the evolution section of introductory biology, a senior seminar in ecology, and an interdisciplinary modeling course; he also will develop a new botany course for 2003-04.  

At the Interdisciplinary Interface

Hiring Wong takes the College's efforts to support interdisciplinary research and teaching a step further. "Our interdisciplinary programs have been made up of people whose 'home' is within a particular discipline, but who also reach across to other departments," Brodfuehrer says. "Ted is the first faculty member in the sciences whose work already is at an interdisciplinary interface."

This reflects current thinking in the sciences. "The interdisciplinary team approach is the way science has been going," Brodfuehrer observes. "Disciplinary boundaries are breaking down."

Wong is looking forward to the challenge. "I want undergraduates to come to me with questions I have never thought about," he says. "I am excited about being a computer-modeling resource and interested to see what kinds of issues can be addressed through computational techniques."

Wong is impressed by Bryn Mawr students' intellectual curiosity and willingness to take risks. "I think students who go to Bryn Mawr are those who probably make nonobvious choices," he says. "It seems a little bit brave to make the less-usual choice of a women's college." 

And Wong believes his unique background will enable him to serve Bryn Mawr students well. "One of the advantages to having taken the roundabout path in my own career is that I have a genuine interest in interacting with people from other intellectual backgrounds," he says.

"The task of computer modeling is to express your ideas in a different language, in this case, a computer language," Wong explains. "It is similar to the task of translating ideas that you are accustomed to expressing in the terminology and metaphors of biology into language used in another discipline."

About the Author

Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering, Engineering News Record and Bryn Mawr Now.

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