Academic biography

I started out my academic life at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Motivated by a boyhood fantasy of space exploration and futuristic gadgets, I started my studies in phyics. I was especially interested in matter-antimatter asymmetry, but little did I know that resolving this questions was not something that would be easily done by a single individual. Although I to this day am astonished by the mathematical elegance of differential geometry as a representation of general relativity, and the ability to represent particles of the standard model by symmetries of a Hamiltonian, I slowly became much more interested in questions related to life on Earth.

My foray into the biological world begun as an undergraduate exchange student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), where I began working on complex networks and various applications in biology, such as the spread of infectious diseases. This focus followed me back to the EPFL, where I continued working in network epidemiology with Paolo de Los Rios. My Master's thesis work on a coarse graining method for spin glasses with Sandro Flammini marked my last adventure in the world of traditional physics.

Just before starting my PhD work at the ETH Zurich, I volunteered as a quantitative analyist in Senegal and Cameroon for the Clinton Health Access Initiative , in a stereotypical attempt to give back to the world some of the knowledge and skills I had learned. Although saving the world singlehandely was as naive as building hyperspace-capable spaceships, this was quite a transformative experience and marked my first exposure to public health related issues, and specifically HIV epidemiology. Surprisingly unrelated, my subsequent PhD work with Sebastian Bonhoeffer married my previous network epidemiology work with public health. More importantly, I was introduced to evolutionary biology, phylogenetics and phylodynamics, (with Tanja Stadler), and—through a close interaction of Sebastian's group and the groups of Paul Schmid-Hempel and Martin Ackermann's groups— evolutionary ecology and evolutionary microbiology.

As part of my PhD, I became interested in ecological networks (e.g. food webs and plant-pollinator networks). Similar to the lack of prior work on bringing evolutionary thinking into network epidemiology—which I worked on together with Alison Hill —there appeared to be a similar lack of integration of evolutionary approaches into ecological interaction networks. This eventually lead to my current focus on microbial communities with Otto Cordero at MIT, where I am studying the effects of community structure on the evolution of the individual community members.