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