Thierry Emonet appointed Lewis B. Cullman Professor in MCDB
Thierry Emonet, whose work on chemical navigation has shed new light on the molecular basis of individuality and has shown how biological diversity can be beneficial to populations, was recently appointed the Lewis B. Cullman Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and Professor of Physics, effective immediately.
He is a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and the Department of Physics.
Trained as an astrophysicist before shifting his focus to biology, Emonet applies computational methods to the understanding of biological systems. By combining mathematical modeling with biophysical experiments, he shows how bacteria, eukaryotes, and insects navigate their environment. His discoveries include new insight on how microscopic organisms gather and react to information; how insects’ sense of smell enables them to navigate their environments; and how bacteria move and act collectively, akin to the behavior of a flock of birds. These findings have illuminated the natural world: they enable us to make predictions about how biological systems will act and react and how living systems respond to environmental fluctuations at all scales, from the smallest individual molecule to the population level.
By examining how organisms at very different scales solve the same computational problem, navigating chemical signals, Emonet’s hope is to discover principles of how biological systems compute.
Currently, Emonet is examining the conflicts and synergies between population diversity and collective behavior to understand how individuality is repressed — or exploited — to maximize the effectiveness of collective behavior. The goal is to discover how diversity and coordination together modulate the emerging function and performance of a group. This work has broad applications in predicting how bacterial communities function, how eukaryotic cells organize into tissues, and how cells navigate their chemical environments.
At the larger scale of insect navigation, Emonet with Yale colleague Damon Clark discovered that fruit flies can smell the motion of odor packets transported by the wind, in a way that is reminiscent of how our visual system detects the motion of objects. For many animals, survival depends on the ability to navigate odor plumes to their sources. This task is complicated by turbulent air motions, which break continuous odor streams emanating from sources into disconnected odor patches swept by the wind. It turns out that odor motion carries directional information that help flies navigate towards the source of odor plumes. Currently, Emonet is examining how flies compute and combine odor motion – a sense that was previously unknown — with other sensory modalities to enhance olfactory navigation. This work has broad implications in neuroscience and ecology.
Emonet has published more than 60 papers, including in the major journals in the field, such as Nature, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the United States, Nature Physics, Nature Communications, Science Advances, Molecular Systems Biology, Developmental Cell, PLoS Computation Biology, and many others. His recent speaking engagements — including lectures at the Collège de France and École Normal Supérieure in Paris, ETH Zürich, Okinawa Institute of Science, Max Plank Institute for Dynamics and Self-organization, Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Chicago — have brought his work to an international audience.
For this work, he has received awards from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, the Whitehall Foundation, James McDonnell Foundation, and the National Academies Keck Future Initiative. He has held fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical institute. His research has been funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.
At Yale, Emonet played an instrumental role in establishing the Quantitative Biology Institute, strengthening Yale’s standing as a hub for innovation in computation approaches to the biological sciences. In 2013, he designed a new Quantitative Biology track within Yale College, providing a set of courses at the interface between biology and physics. He served as co-director of QBio in 2017–2018. He currently serves on the FAS Physical Science and Engineering Area Committee and Tenure Appointments Committee, the QBio executive committee, and is co-director of the Biochemistry, Quantitative Biology, Biophysics and Structural Biology graduate program. He has served on numerous other university-wide bodies. In his home department, he chairs the Diversity and Professional Climate Committee, spearheading efforts to cultivate diversity and inclusion in the department and the field. Emonet is a sought-after mentor who has advised numerous undergraduate and graduate students. He offers courses at the undergraduate and graduate level on biological systems modeling, interdisciplinary research methods, dynamic biological systems, and related topics.
He earned an M.S from ETH Zürich, in 1992, and his Ph.D. from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, in 1998.