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School of Science welcomes new faculty

Professors' research areas include molecular mechanisms in cells, quantum condensed matter, and dark matter.
(Clockwise, from top left) Joseph Checkelsky, Gloria Choi, Ibrahim Cissé, Mark Vogelsberger, Jing-Ke Weng, and Omer Yilmaz.
(Clockwise, from top left) Joseph Checkelsky, Gloria Choi, Ibrahim Cissé, Mark Vogelsberger, Jing-Ke Weng, and Omer Yilmaz.
Image courtesy of the School of Science

The School of Science is pleased to welcome six new professors in the departments of biology, brain and cognitive sciences, and physics. Their research encompasses the intricacies of molecular mechanisms in cells, the unique properties of quantum condensed matter, and dark matter and galaxy formation.

“As the new interim dean of science, I have been learning about the amazing activities in our science departments and laboratories,” says Michael Sipser, Barton L. Weller Professor of Mathematics and head of the Department of Mathematics. “I'm proud to welcome these assistant professors to our faculty. We are incredibly fortunate to attract these extraordinary researchers.”

Joseph Checkelsky, Physics

Assistant Professor of Physics Joseph Checkelsky studies exotic electronic states of matter through the synthesis, measurement, and control of solid state materials, with particular interest in studies of correlated behavior in topologically nontrivial materials, the role of geometrical phases in electronic systems, and novel types of geometric frustration. These studies aim to uncover new physical phenomena that expand the understanding of quantum mechanical condensed matter systems, and to open doorways to new technologies by realizing emergent electronic and magnetic functionalities.

Checkelsky works at the intersection of fundamental solid state physics, solid state chemistry, and nanoscience, with techniques that range from transport and thermodynamic measurements to melt and vapor growth methods and nanoscale probe and device fabrication. After receiving his PhD in physics in 2010 from Princeton University, Checkelsky held the position of lecturer at University of Tokyo and did postdoctoral work at Japan’s Institute for Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN).

Gloria Choi, Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Assistant Professor of Neuroscience Gloria Choi studies how the brain learns to recognize olfactory stimuli and associate them with appropriate behavioral responses. For the senses of vision, touch, and hearing, stimulus features are organized on the surface of the primary sensory cortex in distinct spatial patterns, but no such topological order is apparent for the sense of smell. Individual inputs to the cortex are dedicated to a specific odorant, but their projections into the piriform cortex appear topologically random. Choi uses rodent models to investigate how the brain learns to recognize these seemingly arbitrary patterns of activity and give them behavioral significance. She plans to dissect brain circuits to understand how representations in the piriform cortex can drive downstream targets to produce learned behavioral responses, and then to extend her approach to study social behavior, which in rodents is strongly affected by olfactory cues. Olfactory learning provides an opportunity to study more general questions about how the brain learns to categorize sensory stimuli and to associate them with complex rule-based behaviors. Such cognitive processes have been linked to the prefrontal cortex in humans and other species, and olfactory behavior in mice may offer a new and genetically tractable system for exploring these issues.

Choi received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley and her PhD from Caltech, where she studied with David Anderson, an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Before coming to MIT, she was a postdoctoral research scientist in the laboratory of Richard Axel at Columbia University.

Ibrahim Cissé, Physics

Assistant Professor of Physics Ibrahim Cissé works from first principles to study emergent phenomena in live cells with single-molecule sensitivity, and applies novel biophysical approaches to investigate weak and transient biological interactions. Cissé applies “super-resolution” techniques to highly dynamic, collective behaviors in living cells, using quantitative, fluorescent methods capable of high spatial localization (in the tens of nanometers, well below the optical diffraction limit) and high temporal resolution (in tens of milliseconds) to apprehend emergent phenomena. Cissé also works to bring to light the poorly understood roles of weak and transient interactions in the regulation of such molecular mechanisms as genome maintenance, nuclear organization, and gene expression regulation. Weak and transient interactions often include biomolecular complexes with high dissociation constants resistant to commonly used in vitro biochemical approaches, or proteins that require too high a copy number for in vivo detection with conventional fluorescent microscopy. Cissé’s lab seeks to overcome these limitations by taking new approaches based on single-molecule imaging.

Cissé comes to MIT from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus, where he worked in the Transcription Imaging Consortium. Originally from Niger, he  received his bachelor of science in physics from North Carolina Central University, completed his graduate work in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and then moved to the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a Pierre Gilles de Gennes fellow and a European Molecular Biology Organization long-term fellow.

Mark Vogelsberger, Physics

Assistant Professor of Physics Mark Vogelsberger is a theoretical astrophysicist whose research interests span cosmology, galaxy formation, stellar feedback processes, dark matter physics, dark matter detection, and the detailed structure of dark matter on small scales. His research makes extensive use of numerical simulations using high-performance supercomputers around the world. Vogelsberger received his PhD from the University of Munich and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in 2009. He was an ITC postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics from 2009 to 2012, and a Hubble fellow from 2012 to 2013.

Jing-Ke Weng, Biology

Jing-Ke Weng, joining the faculty as an assistant professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, has broad interests in the origin and evolution of specialized metabolism in plants at the enzyme, pathway, and systems levels, as well as how plants exploit discrete small molecules to interact with their surrounding biotic and abiotic environments. Weng works to address one of the fundamental questions in biology, using chemodiverse plants to discover how complex traits evolve in a Darwinian fashion. He also actively seeks opportunities to utilize plants as unique model systems to study human diseases, including metabolic syndromes and protein-misfolding diseases. Weng received his PhD in biochemistry from Purdue University in 2009 under the direction of Clint Chapple, and was subsequently awarded a Pioneer Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, working with Joseph Noel.

Omer Yilmaz, Biology

Omer Yilmaz begins this semester as an assistant professor of biology after working as a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of David Sabatini at the Whitehead Institute. He currently studies the effect of caloric restriction on intestinal stem cells, linking the benefits of caloric restriction to the regulation of intestinal stem cells by their cellular neighborhood (or niche cells) in the small intestine. Yilmaz plans to expand our understanding of how an organism’s nutritional state influences the biology of intestinal stem cells and their niche, and in particular how caloric restriction and obesity play a role in intestinal aging, regeneration, and tumorigenesis. By better understanding how intestinal stem cells adapt to diverse diets, he hopes to identify and develop new strategies to prevent and reduce the growth of cancers of the small intestine, colon, and rectum. After receiving his PhD and MD from University of Michigan Medical School in 2008, he was a resident in anatomic pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School until 2013.

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