“When I was little, I realized that I had the same birthday as Isaac Newton, which seemed like a tough act to follow,” says Bridget Queenan. “So I asked myself, what could you do with your life that Newton couldn’t? And the answer was: try to figure out how life works.”
As the inaugural Executive Director of Research at the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology at Harvard, Queenan has the chance to pursue that dream.
“The fundamental problems of biology are both fascinating and formidable,” says Queenan. “It requires an unbelievable amount of expertise to reveal the rules of life, more than one person or one department could possibly have alone. You need people who understand and appreciate living creatures. You need people who invent microscopes and tools to capture life in action. You need people who invent math and statistics that extract meaning from that data. You need people to invent new physics that accounts for the behavior of living matter.”
Now Harvard’s Quantitative Biology Initiative and the newly founded NSF-Simons Center at Harvard are making that formidable task less formidable.
“Harvard has all the individual components we need to approach these previously unassailable biological problems,” says Vinny Manoharan, the Wagner Family Professor of Chemical Engineering and Professor of Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Now we have the opportunity to create a community that turns those individual sets of expertise into something even greater.”
“We want to train the very best young people and send them forth to improve national and international capacity to solve problems like this,” says Andrew Murray, the Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics and director of the John Harvard Distinguished Science Fellowship Program. “And while we train and help them, they will do spectacular science.”
“This is a remarkable time to be at Harvard,” says Sharad Ramanathan, Llura and Gordon Gund Professor of Neurosciences and of Molecular & Cellular Biology and professor of Applied Physics and Stem Cell & Regenerative Biology. “We are approaching scientific problems no one could have imagined rigorously approaching before.”
Working closely with QBio co-directors Manoharan and Ramanathan and NSF-Simons Center director Andrew Murray, Queenan is building an integrated scientific enterprise that spans the life, physical, computational, engineering, and mathematical sciences. “I guess we will consider stopping once the whole university is involved,” she says. “But we’ll probably just keep going.”
Queenan arrives from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she was the Research Director for Biological Engineering, Science & Technology. “I loved UCSB and found it enormously difficult to leave,” says Queenan. “It was encouraging to realize so many of my Harvard colleagues had come through UCSB, as students, postdocs or faculty.”
Dr. Queenan previously earned an A.B. in Biochemistry at Harvard and was awarded Best Ph.D. in the Sciences at Georgetown University. She was a Distinguished Science of Learning Fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the lead editor at Thieme Medical Publishers, where she developed what is now one of the world’s most beloved and best-selling anatomy atlases. She also worked at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the Institut Pasteur, and Laxmi Therapeutic Devices.
“I’ve been lucky to spend my entire life in the life sciences,” says Queenan. “I can’t thank my seven-year-old self enough for letting me have this adventure.”