Emory physicist Daniel Weissman awarded 2021 Sloan Research Fellowship

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Feb. 16, 2021

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Emory College physicist Daniel Weissman, who specializes in building mathematical models to better understand the rapid evolution of pathogens, has been named a Sloan Research Fellow. The prestigious fellowship honors the most promising researchers working today.

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Emory College physicist Daniel Weissman, who specializes in building mathematical models to better understand the rapid evolution of pathogens, has been named a 2021 Sloan Research Fellow.

The prestigious fellowship honors Weissman as among the most promising researchers working today. He plans to use the $75,000, two-year award to amplify his latest effort, to examine antibiotic resistance by building a model from a massive database of genomes from Staphylococcus aureus, an opportunistically pathogenic skin bacterium. The database was constructed by Timothy Read, an infectious diseases professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

“You’re talking about looking at 70,000 genomes, several million bases long, to see if there are patterns that predict the evolution of antibiotic resistance,” Weissman says. “I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity and cross-collaboration.”

Weissman, working with postdoctoral scholar Rohan Mehta, plans to mentor undergraduate and graduate students in working on the project, which showcases the depth of Emory’s interdisciplinary efforts across the university.

For instance, Weissman and Read are both faculty in the Emory Initiative for the Theory and Modeling of Living Systems and the Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution graduate program, which also includes experts from the Emory Rollins School of Public Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others.

Weissman, who shares an appointment with the Department of Biology, is incorporating both natural selection and spatial location in his model using Read’s data. For the bacteria to adapt, new mutations must not only be favored by selection, but also be spread from the place in which they originally occurred.

“There is a rich tradition in physics to hypothesize models for what you can’t see,” says Stefan Boettcher, professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “Emory is becoming a hotbed for the integration of that mindset with data from other fields, and Dr. Weissman is exemplary for what we can accomplish from that union.”

The Sloan Research Fellowships are open to scholars in eight fields – chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics – who have a record of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field. 

Past Sloan Research Fellows include physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, and game theorist John Nash. Fifty fellows have received a Nobel Prize in their respective fields.

Weissman arrived at Emory in 2015 as a theorist focused on understanding evolution quantitatively. He was named a Simons Investigator in the Mathematical Modeling of Living Systems in 2017.