There is a certain way of looking at problems whereby you try to simplify them in ways that biologists often don’t like. Biologists are often committed to the details of what they study. They think those details are important, and for many questions they are important. But depending on the question, some details may not be. A theoretical physicist simplifies a problem in a way that makes it amenable to a mathematical analysis, while still preserving the essence of what is complicated, the essence of the phenomenon one is trying to understand. Of course, the simplification has to depend on the question you’re asking.
To me it was eye-opening that this kind of training or way of thinking could be applied to neuroscience. I had no idea at that point in my life that neuroscience — or any field of biology, for that matter — could be tackled productively using the approaches or thinking styles that a physicist or a mathematician might have. I had never really studied biology. Since high school I had always avoided it, because I had a terrible biology course in ninth grade that was just memorizing parts of things and I’m terrible at memorizing.
That was one of the things that drove me to physics, because physicists are very proud of being able to derive things from first principles, and everything logically fits together. A lot of people have a wrong impression of math because of a bad high school class or a bad experience with math early on. That happened to me with biology.
I plunged straight in. I was like, “I’m going to learn neuroscience, I’m not going to worry about applying specific mathematical tools, I’m just going to be open-minded and immerse myself.”
Carina Curto, Associate Professor, Department of Mathematics, Pennsylvania State University