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Strengthening Collaborations

   2018 seems to be a great year for the Simons Centre at NCBS in terms of collaborative science! With our faculty having embarked on various collaborative visits across our partner institutions, as well as having hosted numerous collaborators at NCBS, Bangalore this year (Prof. Stephan Herminghaus, MPI-DS, Gottingen; Prof. Frank Jülicher, MPI-PKS, Dresden; and Dr. Timothy Saunders, MBI, Singapore to name just a few), we are always looking to push the boundaries of collaborative science.

   A small but significant addition of this milieu of international collaborative efforts is the joint doctoral supervision of Harvey Devereux – a graduate student at the University of Warwick – by Prof. Matthew Turner (University of Warwick) and Dr. Shashi Thutupalli (Simons Centre at NCBS).

   Harvey joined the University of Warwick as an integrated MSc student in 2017, as part of the Mathematics for Real World Systems (MathSys) course. He describes this course as a “doctoral training [program] designed to approach real world problems with a wholly interdisciplinary approach, with a strong emphasis on external collaboration.”

Having been assigned a personal tutor, who was “interested in just about everything (as long as Physics was involved)”, Prof Turner had a lasting influence on the way Harvey perceived interdisciplinary science and international collaborations.

   It was in the initial phase of Harvey’s MSc that Prof. Turner shared a video with him, which Dr. Thutupalli had shown him during his visit to the Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines at NCBS, Bangalore.

The video depicted a collection of beetles called the Whirligig beetles (of the Gyrinidae family) that are known to move on the surface of water and exhibit collective behaviour. As Harvey explains, “the collective dynamics of these beetles is unusual in that it resembles a system exhibiting motility-induced phase separation (MIPS)”. In other words, to the naked eye, it appears as if the “the beetles’ speed is significantly reduced when they are in regions of high density” and this is thought to be the driving force behind this system exhibiting MIPS.

   Fascinated by this video, Harvey decided to study the motion patterns of Whirligig beetles as part of his MSc project. Since Dr. Thutupalli’s group had been studying these beetles and their collective behavior for some time now, they were able to provide Harvey with ample experimental video footage for seeding his MSc project.

   Harvey recalls that the project was initially focused on reconstructing “individual trajectories for each beetle” in order to “ask questions about the insects' behaviour and motion at an individual level”. However, the project later moved towards understanding “the motility of the beetles in relation to the density of beetles”, which would then enable them to “apply more sophisticated machine learning techniques” to model the beetles’ collective behaviour.

   Before Harvey knew it, his “three-month Master’s project had evolved” into an very interesting thesis that “culminated in a new and exciting collaboration” between the three of them.

As part of this collaborative effort, the trio “examined the qualitative relationships of beetle speed with their density and the inter-beetle separations” and discovered some of the potential hallmarks of the underlying physical mechanism by which this motility induced phase separation occurred. But, more interestingly, they also observed some intriguing behavioural phenomena in these beetles, such as the desire to cluster together and not be on the periphery.

   Having successfully completed his Master’s thesis, Harvey has started working on his doctoral research since October this year, and now wants to “adapt existing active Brownian particle models to explore this system in an analytical sense” and be able to uncover some of the novel behavioural strategies used by these beetles. He also reiterates how this international collaboration allows him to conduct newer experiments with the beetles, which are informed by the prior work done by Shashi’s group.

   Speaking about his choice to continue working on this project for his PhD, Harvey explains that the “main motivation for studying collective motion in ‘out-of-equilibrium’, motile systems” such as a group of Whirligig beetles, is actually twofold: it serves as “a new class of systems in non-equilibrium physics” and further, they can be used as “models for experimental systems like swarming animals and artificial catalytic swimmers” which are often difficult to study empirically.

Deeper collaborative roots

   Interestingly, Prof. Turner association with the Simons Centre at NCBS goes much further back in time than Harvey’s joint supervision with Dr. Thutupalli. Prof. Turner recalls that he was first introduced to Prof. Madan Rao (Simons Centre at NCBS) and Prof. Satyajit Mayor (Director, NCBS) through Prof. Peirre Sens (Group Leader at Institut Curie, Paris, and Director of Research at CNRS, France).

   Prof. Turner had then gone on to invite Prof. Rao to give a series of lectures to the graduate students at the Centre for Complexity Science at University of Warwick, England. He describes that “the lectures (and research seminars) went down very well with the students, although Madan accused me of working him very hard; which may be true”.

   At around the same time, a graduate student, Alex Rautu, and a post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Richard Morris, from Prof. Turner’s group were on the lookout for their next scientific positions. “After meeting Madan, and learning about the opportunities at NCBS, both of them soon accepted postdoctoral fellowships to work in the Simons Centre at NCBS,” recalls Prof. Turner, who thinks very highly of both Alex and Richard.

Soon, Prof. Madan Rao invited Prof. Turner and his colleague, Prof. George Rowlands (Emeritus Professor at University of Warwick), to visit the Simons Centre at NCBS in 2017, where they both had several exciting discussions related to biological physics and learnt more about the ongoing work in the groups of various NCBS faculty like Mukund Thattai, Satyajit Mayor, Madan Rao, Shashi Thutupalli, Sandeep Krishna, Shannon Olsson among others.

   Prof. Turner admits that he was “really blown away with the uniformly exceptional quality of the people working at NCBS” and considers Simons at NCBS as “a world leading centre for the application of quantitative techniques to the understanding of biological systems”.

   Before leaving back for England, he promised himself to try and “establish a new, active collaboration with at least one of the people” he had met during his visit to NCBS, and the joint supervision of Harvey by Prof Turner and Dr. Thutupalli is of course, was a direct outcome of that resolution.

   Talking about this recent collaboration with Dr. Thutupalli, Prof. Turner concludes by saying, “I have no doubt that, together, we can make a great success of this nascent collaboration and hopefully there can be many more to come.”