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Physics - Biophysics & Biological Physics | Journal of Biological Physics - incl. option to publish open access

Journal of Biological Physics

Journal of Biological Physics

Editor-in-Chief: S. Bahar; R. Podgornik

ISSN: 0092-0606 (print version)
ISSN: 1573-0689 (electronic version)

Journal no. 10867

Interview with Sonya Bahar

On behalf of International Women's Day 2014

What appealed to you in starting out in your field? 

TXi_SonyaBahar
I wanted to understand the universe, plain and simple. I was driven by a very “existentialist” attitude when I was a student: the world is absurd, and as a conscious being I wanted to explore it as deeply as possible while I could. Having a very materialist bent, this naturally led me to science. When trying to decide what science to go into, I was initially attracted by chemistry, and read a textbook I had borrowed from my school library (reading it by flashlight at night, feeling very “Madame Curie”). But I the part of the book I found most fascinating was the chapter about the Bohr atom, so I soon began to read about the revolution in physics in the 1920s, and fell in love with quantum mechanics. I read A. d’Abro’s The Rise of the New Physics, and the die was cast! When I started my undergraduate studies (in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia), I was determined to go into theoretical particle physics (isn’t everyone?). But in my senior year (1990-1991) I began to learn about nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory. I read James Gleick’s beautiful popular science book Chaos: the Making of a New Science, and had the opportunity to do my senior thesis working with Robert Gilmore, a pioneer in chaos theory who was then exploring the internal structure of chaotic attractors. At the same time, I “re-discovered” biology, which I had basically ignored since high school. I began to think about the possibility of combining nonlinear dynamics with biology. I was moving toward the idea of complex systems (and was very inspired by a talk that Stuart Kauffman gave at Drexel as a guest of our Society of Physics Students), but the link between dynamics and biology was so new at the time that I was flying blind, trying to find my way into a field that hardly existed yet. I decided to pursue graduate studies in Biophysics at the University of Rochester, and worked with Phil Knauf on anion exchange in blood cells; it was a very “wet lab biochemistry” dissertation, and while it was fascinating to learn a new field of science, I missed mathematics and physics. Gradually, during postdoctoral work, I figured out what research areas had the most exciting mixture of nonlinear dynamics and biophysics. Since 1997 I have been working on dynamics in biological systems, initially with cardiac dynamics and neural synchronization, and now with dynamics and phase transitions in evolutionary models. For me, it’s a perfect balance.

Can you recall any women colleagues, mentors or pioneers of your field you drew or continue to draw inspiration from? How might they have inspired change in your field? 

I wish I could give a clear “yes” answer to the first of these questions, but I can’t. As a child, I was inspired, as are so many young women, by the story of Madame Curie (and watched a brilliant BBC series on her life in the late 1970s). I was very inspired by a chemistry teacher, Charlotte Hameka, when I was in high school; but I was equally inspired by my physics teacher, William Sweeney, so I think it was more the personalities of these wonderful teachers rather than their genders that made them important to me. As a student, I knew very successful women researchers (Joan Centrella at Drexel and Ingrid Sarelius at Rochester). All that being said, most of the physicists I read about (and studied with) were men, and I set off in science with the expectation that I would be a scientist alongside my male colleagues, and that gender would have nothing to do with my intellectual work. My father was a professor of mechanical engineering (he really worked on classical mechanics, for the most part), and he was always very encouraging of me, and never considered the possibility that my gender would impede my career. I had several wonderful mentors as an undergraduate who were men (Bob Gilmore and Lorenzo Narducci). I became much more aware of gender issues when I was a graduate student. I saw a close friend hospitalized with anorexia and realized with horrifying clarity how societal demands can twist the mental energy of young women away from fighting to explore and improve the world, and dissipate all that energy in self-hatred. I saw how that poison had affected me as well; that enraged me and I wanted to fight against it. I also saw gender bias in a way I had not experienced as an undergraduate: one professor called me a “wench”, and another commented, after a visiting seminar speaker had given an energetic and exciting talk on her research, “She must have a lot of testosterone to be running a big lab like that.” It was experiences like that that led me to read in more depth about the women’s rights movement, and to become a feminist. I was very inspired by writers like Susan Sontag and Kate Millett. Their exploration of the creative process, in others and in themselves, was immensely liberating to me, and provided a creative freedom that I have tried to bring into my own work.

What can we look forward to this year in regards to your journal’s content or development? 

10867
This year, we are planning to add several new members to the JOBP board, in order to expand our expertise in systems biology, quantum/density functional calculations, and the applications of statistical mechanics in the study of molecular structure. This will help the journal continue to grow in some of the most exciting and cutting-edge areas of biological physics. We are hoping to highlight as well some advances in the biological physics of DNA translocation, and the role of biological physics in the quest for a “$1000 genome”. JOBP has a long tradition of publishing special issues on important current topics, and we hope to publish an issue on polymer translocation and sequencing in 2014, guest-edited by our Editorial Board member Tapio Ala-Nissila.

 

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    Many physicists are turning their attention to domains that were not traditionally part of physics and are applying the sophisticated tools of theoretical, computational and experimental physics to investigate biological processes, systems and materials.

    The Journal of Biological Physics provides a medium where this growing community of scientists can publish its results and discuss its aims and methods. It welcomes papers which use the tools of physics in an innovative way to study biological problems, as well as research aimed at providing a better understanding of the physical principles underlying biological processes.

    All areas of biological physics can be addressed, from the molecular level, through the mesoscale of membranes and cells, up to the macroscopic level of a population of living organisms, the main criteria of acceptance being the physical content of the research and its relevance to biological systems. In order to increase the links between physics and biology and among the various fields of biological physics, authors are advised to include a first section that introduces the basic issues addressed and the primary achievements to a non-specialist reader.

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