Profiles of Pioneers: Class of 2004–2009
Rob Phillips, Ph.D.
California Institute of Technology
“This is the most important and satisfying funding that I have had in my entire career. It is no exaggeration to say that having the Pioneer Award transformed my research group and me personally.”
“ … any top-10 list of challenges for physicists would have to include some items that address the startling complexity of the living world. Many beautiful and mysterious problems are revealed in the puzzling variety of living organisms that range from viruses—molecules that copy themselves—to rock-eating bacteria to beings with complex thought and action.”
—Pioneer Awardees Rob Phillips and Stephen Quake, in “The Biological Frontier of Physics,” Physics Today, May 2006
Before getting his Pioneer Award, Dr. Rob Phillips had a lab of researchers pursuing theoretical physics approaches to materials science. His goal at the time, however, was to begin to apply his engineering and physical science methods to answering biological questions.
One of the great appeals of the Pioneer Award, Phillips says, was its flexibility to allow him to pursue several very distinct problems that would not have been testable via traditional R01 funding, because none of those projects had preliminary data.
Phillips considers the most important outcome of his Pioneer Award to be his book, Physical Biology of the Cell, in which he and his co-authors attempt to provide a defining vision of physical biology.
After five years of Pioneer Award funding, Phillips now has a fully functioning biophysics lab that has served as “physical biology bootcamp” for several hundred professors, postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates.
His research group has also done interesting experiments on problems ranging from how genomes are packed and released from viruses to how DNA looping alters gene activity and how bacterial cells detect osmotic pressure.
Phillips predicts that the best results may be yet to come, such as results from “out there” experiments on nonequilibrium statistical mechanics applicable to biological systems that are currently under way. Those studies would never have gotten off the ground without Pioneer Award support, he says.
Phillips R, Kondev J, Theriot J. Physical Biology of the Cell. Garland Science, 2008.
Phillips R, Quake S. The biological frontier of physics. Physics Today 2006;38-43.
Phillips R, Ursell T, Wiggins P, Sens P. Emerging roles for lipids in shaping membrane-protein function. Nature 2009;459:379-85.
Grayson P, Han L, Winther T, Phillips R. Real-time observations of single bacteriophage lambda DNA ejections in vitro. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2007;104:14652-7.
Bintu L, Buchler NE, Garcia HG, Gerland U, et al. Transcriptional regulation by the numbers: models. Curr Opin Genet Dev 2005;15:116-24.
Bintu L, Buchler NE, Garcia HG, Gerland U, et al. Transcriptional regulation by the numbers: applications. Curr Opin Genet Dev 2005;15:125-35.
Up to Top