Entering a Career: Q&A with Dr. Corina Tarnita from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Dr. Corina Tarnita is a professor and mathematical biologist in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I was fortunate enough to have her last fall as my professor for the freshman seminar FRS 191: The Equations of Life. I recently met with her to ask some questions about her background and career.
Daily Princetonian: How would you define mathematical biology?
Corina Tarnita: I would say it’s the use of mathematical tools to explore questions in biology. In my work, I use relatively simple models to try to get at the principles of biological organization.
DP: How did you end up as a mathematical biologist?
CT: I was a math undergrad and then I started my Ph.D. at Harvard in pure math, but at some point I started to feel less happy doing math. I worked in a field that I loved and thought was ideal for me: algebraic geometry. But at some point during my first year of grad school, the problems started to feel so abstract that I felt like I had no intuition about them anymore. My adviser thought I was burnt out, so he advised me to go to the math library and pick out a book that didn’t have to do with any of the math I had done so far. I happened to pick this one book with a colorful cover and the title “Evolutionary Dynamics: The Equations of Life.” It was an amazing book; I couldn’t put it down. Then I realized that the guy who wrote it was a professor at Harvard, and I went to do a project with him for six months. I enjoyed working on the project, but I kept wondering, “Is this fun just because it’s a break and it’s about learning a new use for math, or is it the thing that I’m going to be passionate about forever?” Towards the end of the six months, I started to realize that I was waking up every morning excited to ask questions in this new field. I realized this was it; I switched fields and never looked back.
DP: How did you end up at Princeton?
CT: In 2009 I started to work with the naturalist E. O. Wilson on a model to explain the evolution of the complex social behavior seen in ants, known as eusociality. It was the first time that I had interacted closely with an empirical biologist, and the extraordinary stories he was telling made me realize that I really wanted to be a biologist. At around the same time I met Rob Pringle, now my colleague in EEB at Princeton. We started to work on a model of species interactions inspired by his work in Africa, but he felt that the questions I kept asking him were too abstract and would never have come up had I actually known the system. So he and I went to Kenya to see the system first hand, and that was an extraordinary and life-changing experience. I immediately felt an incredible connection with this beautiful place and an urge to understand it. A year later, as my fellowship at Harvard was winding down and I was trying to decide what kind of departments I should apply to, I met my now-colleague Simon Levin at a conference. Knowing that he also had a Ph.D. in math but was a theoretical ecologist, I asked him how to make the decision. His answer was a question: “What kind of scientists would you like to interact with every day?” I suddenly felt clarity that it was biologists, because hearing about their work and their systems had always been the biggest source of creativity for me. He then said, “Well, since that’s the answer, you should know that we’re advertising an open position at Princeton; why don’t you apply for it?” So I applied, and that’s how I got here.