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Agnese Seminara joins MaLGa…with an ERC in her pocket!

03/06/2022

PiMLB - Agnese Seminara - [Vertebrato Mascella Organismo]

Boston, Paris, Nice…but there’s no place like home. After an outstanding research career abroad, including positions at Harvard, the Pasteur Institut and CNRS, we are ecstatic to announce that Agnese Seminara chose to bet on the DICCA Department of the University of Genoa and MaLGa to build her new team. Her project RIDING brings a new angle to research in machine learning and will be fueled by an ERC Consolidator Grant worth 2M euros – the third ERC Grant for MaLGa. This new line of research nucleates the newborn MaLGa Unit PiMLB: Physics Informed Machine Learning for Biological behaviour. The project? 

 

Imagine you are surrounded by water. There is a target you want to catch. You cannot really see it, but the target sends you information through water. First: you smell its odor through chemical sensors in your nose. Second: you know you are close to the target when you sense the water currents it generates as it moves. Organisms solve this problem ruoutinely to find food or mates and to escape predators: what are the algorithms they use? How do they combine redundant chemical and mechanical information in an environment dominated by noise? 

 

Turbulence is both the problem and the solution: it carries signals a long way, but at the same time it breaks them into discrete patches and distorts them so they are hard to use. To address this challenge we blend theory, numerics and experiments with biological systems. We are interested in model organisms like mice and bacteria as well as less studied organisms like higher fungi, octopus and jellyfish and real weirdos, like piranhas and sea robins (a fish with legs!). In the big picture, we believe that biological behavior will teach us how we can leverage redundancy to solve a complex task despite uncertainty.

 

Agnese Seminara graduated in physics from the University of Genoa in 2004 with a master thesis on the role of turbulence for cloud microphysics. In 2007 she obtained her PhD in physics from the Institut non lineaire de Nice under the supervision of Antonio Celani and Andrea Mazzino, with a thesis on turbulent transport - from the statistics of passive scalar fields transported by turbulent flows, to the fate of droplets condensing in a turbulent cloud, to the properties of rocky costs. In 2008 she switched to biology, and joined the group of Michael Brenner at Harvard University and then of Massimo Vergassola at Institut Pasteur, thanks to a Marie Curie Fellowship. During her postdoc she worked on the physics of microbial systems, from the biomechanics of bacterial biofilm growth, to the violent discharge and atmospheric dispersal of fungal spores. Back to Harvard in 2012 as an instructor of Applied Mathematics, she started her work on turbulent navigation. In 2013 she obtained an independent position at CNRS and integrated the Institut de Physique de Nice. She is the recipient of the CNRS Bronze Medal and of the L’Oreal Unesco award for Women in Science. In 2021 she joined the University of Genoa to start her newly funded ERC Consolidator grant on physics informed algorithms for sensing and navigating turbulent environments.

 

Her work touches diverse problems at the interface of physics and biology, from bacterial colony growth, to the violent discharge and atmospheric dispersal of fungal spores, to the computational principles that govern navigation in diverse organisms from mice and octopuses to sea robins and other marine organisms. The thread that connects all of these systems is their fluid environment. Her work is inspired by the diversity of solutions organisms evolved to understand their fluid environment, even when turbulence makes it unpredictable and risky.