Corina Tarnita had no idea she’d become an expert on ants. Or termites. Or amoebas. The Romanian-born Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology started out as a gifted math student, before coming to the United States at 19 to earn a bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard.
As her numerical studies progressed, however, Tarnita feared going deeper into highly specific research areas. “It started to feel claustrophobic. I didn’t really like the feeling of knowing only three other people in the world know about your problem and care about it.”
As a diversion, she picked up a book called The Equations of Life, which offered “a math perspective on biology” and opened her eyes to a whole new area of study. “It was like putting on glasses and finally seeing something in what otherwise seemed like a blur before,” she says of applying math to life sciences.
Now, Tarnita develops mathematical models to explain the sometimes-illogical ways living organisms interact and cooperate. By Agatha Bordonaro ’04