A single textbook has demanded Jane Kondev's attention for the past 14 years. Kondev, a theoretical physicist, is one of four authors of Physical Biology of the Cell, a textbook that has become a standard reference for undergraduate and graduate courses in biophysics and biochemistry around the world. The themes that carry through the book, which demonstrates why cell biology is rapidly becoming a quantitative science, also frame Kondev's own work investigating the mathematical laws that govern the living world.
In their textbook, Kondev and his coauthors, Rob Phillips, HHMI investigator Julie Theriot, and Hernan Garcia, focus on three themes: taming the volume and complexity of biological data using coarse-grained models; the idea that biologically distant phenomena can be quite close when viewed through the lens of physics; and the idea that quantitative experiments in biology demand equally quantitative theories to explain them. These same concepts guide Kondev's research and have led his lab to several key discoveries.
By searching for mathematical frameworks to explain data from experiments on single molecules and single cells, Kondev has discovered the physical mechanism that controls how genes are positioned within E. coli cells; uncovered a novel mechanism by which repressors in bacteria regulate gene activity; and determined how yeast cells control the size of actin cables, the bundles of filaments that run the length of a cell and are required for transport of cellular cargo during reproduction. His theoretical work has influenced the research directions of well-established biology labs, and his most significant discoveries have been made through collaborations that combine theory and experiments.
Kondev's work on Physical Biology of the Cell has coincided with the development of a new biological physics major at Brandeis, as well as three new undergraduate courses. The major, which Kondev co-developed, requires students to complete two semesters of chemistry, physics, and biology with labs, as well as more advanced physics and biochemistry courses. It was created to attract to Brandeis talented students who are both excited by modern biology problems and enjoy doing math and physics. His two-semester course in biological physics introduces first-year students to biological problems from the point of view of simple physics concepts that are taught concurrently in the first-year physics course. Kondev is also the founding co-director of the graduate program in Quantitative Biology at Brandeis, which was started with a grant from HHMI and whose goal is to educate the next generation of scientists working at the interface of the physical and life sciences.