New faculty profile: Kalin Vetsigian

Kalin Vetsigian joined the faculty of the Department of Bacteriology in January.

Please tell us about your career path to date
My research career has followed a path from math and theoretical physics to theoretical evolutionary biology, and, eventually to experimental microbial ecology. This trajectory was not accidental, but resulted from answering two basic questions relatively early on in my career. The first was: What is the most exciting area of physics for me?  The answer was condensed matter physics, i.e understanding how counterintuitive collective behavior and complex order emerges from interactions between individual constituents. The second question was: Which is the most fascinating collective dynamical process to study? The easy answer to that was: evolution of biological complexity. Traditional evolutionary theory ignores the emergent properties of communities, and I decided to set myself on a path to study the collective aspects of evolution.

During high school I won a gold medal at the 26th International Physics Olympiad. I obtained bachelor degrees in physics and mathematics at MIT and then went to study condensed matter physics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for my PhD. I started by working on pattern formation in processes far from equilibrium, such as snowflake growth, and then switched to biology. I worked on several problems of theoretical evolutionary biology, focusing on the role of horizontal gene transfer for microbial speciation and the evolution of universality and optimality of the genetic code. I also developed a unified framework for the emergence of genome biases such as codon usage, GC content and skews. During my postdoc, I decided to add experiments to my research arsenal in order to pursue a tight integration between my theoretical ideas and empirical observations. Driven by my desire to learn more about the processes in microbial communities, I developed a platform for measuring the web of antibiotic interactions within soil communities, and used theoretical models to make sense of my observations.

What is the main focus of your research program?
I am interested in the evolution of microbial interactions. Since natural microbial communities are too complex and idiosyncratic to be modeled, I am focusing on toy communities in the lab.  To this end I am developing high-throughput tools for measuring different types of interactions and methods for propagating and monitoring communities in the lab. I will be measuring how different interactions patterns affect population dynamic outcomes and determining the mechanisms through which interactions evolve in such communities.

What drew you to UW-Madison?
Given my research agenda, I was looking for a place with strong tradition in microbiology, ecology and evolution, which would also be supportive of interdisciplinary research and systems biology. Between the renowned Department of Bacteriology and the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery, all these requirements were satisfied, and UW-Madison as a whole was a perfect match. In addition, Madison is one of the great places in the U.S. to live and raise family.