A Physics Career Along the Path Less Traveled

Michelle Girvan’s career defies easy categorization. Currently a professor of physics, very little of her research would be immediately recognizable to a physics traditionalist. Instead, she applies her physics training to tackle discipline-spanning scientific questions that range from social relationships and cancer genetics to artificial intelligence (AI). 

When asked how she identifies herself to new colleagues, a thoughtful smile crossed her face as she pondered a reply.

“That’s a very interesting question. I often say I’m a physics professor who does applied mathematics. It’s a broader umbrella that allows me to work on nearly any problem, as long as I focus on the math that underlies it,” explained Girvan, who also has joint appointments in UMD’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology and Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. “But I still think of myself as a physicist, because physicists seek simple, cohesive explanations for complex phenomena. I’m still looking for those overarching organizing principles, even if I’m applying them to biological or social problems.”

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