Thomas Gregor

Assistant professor of Physics and member of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics

Why am I doing this?


There are three outstanding questions in nature that fuel my curiosity: What is it all made of? Where did it all come from? What is life and what makes us think? Physicists have come a long way at tackling the former two with particle- and astrophysics; however, the latter has traditionally been left to life scientists, and physicists were brought in for new tools and toys, and for quantitative support.

I believe physicists should study life as a question in it’s own right though; as a quantitatively trained scientist who sometimes asks naive questions; as an explorer who discovers “the land of the living”. My only hypothesis is that life has to somehow be reconciled with the laws of physics; and I think it is worth asking what was the “big bang” of life, or what was the “big bang” of consciousness.

But then there is also something else in it for me, in which I do see some “magic” in life, but I don’t trust or believe it, which makes me nervous and makes me want to understand more. I always felt this magic when I had a living organism under my microscope and that organism would just do its spiel for me, over and over, as if driven by a magic hand. I think the true beauty of biology is that we physicists don’t get it, and that there is this “life thing” that we cannot put into our preconceived frameworks. That’s what distinguishes life from the traditional aspects of nature studied by physicists; and I think that’s where we might have a true chance at discovering some new physics through the “eyes” of life.

Thomas’ Curriculum Vitae

Research Associates

Duong “Zoom” Nguyen

Postdoctoral Research Associate

I am interested in self-organization of active constituents. Dictyostelium discoideum (dicty), a social amoeba species, is an ideal system to study such phenomena because upon starving, they enter the development phase and transform from unicellular to multicellular organisms, the dynamics of which is readily observable and trackable under the microscope thanks to their large size, fast and directional motility. During development, dicty cells communicate via a messenger molecule called cAMP to guide their aggregation towards the center. I am building a setup that is able to interact optically with dicty communication to study signaling and aggregation dynamics of the wild type as well as mutant strains.


Allyson Sgro, NRSA recipient

Postdoctoral Research Associate/WSE Fellow

I am interested in understanding how cells communicate and work together to form an organism to answer the ultimate question at what point a cell or group of cells is not just a biochemical machine but truly a lifeform.  For my Ph.D., I focused on developing methods to help biologists answer these questions.  My current research involves both developing novel methods to aid in this work and examining the emergence of collective behavior using the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum.


Shawn Little

Postdoctoral Research Associate

Embryonic development of multicellular organisms exhibits a high degree of reproducibility, such that patterning proceeds normally across a range of environmental and genetic conditions. The formation and interpretation of the Bicoid protein gradient in Drosophila embryos provides a rich set of opportunities for exploring the cell biologic processes underlying reproducibility and robustness in embryonic development. I am collaborating with Thomas’ lab in performing quantitative analysis of nuclear and cytoplasmic Bcd distribution in pre-syncytial embryos to determine the reproducibility of early gradients. I am investigating methods to examine the degree to which early Bcd distribution contributes to the highly reproducible nuclear Bcd gradient seen during syncytial stages.


Hongtao Chen

Postdoctoral Research Associate

I have always been fascinated by the beauty of life forms and deeply appreciating the comparative traditions of biological research. Large collections and precise descriptions of biological patterns will not only yield answers to questions we already have, but also provide new questions and insights, as did the Linnean collections two hundred years ago or the explosion of omics data in the last two decades. Trained as a molecular geneticist, I was exited about the live-imaging platforms established by the Gregor lab. Applying these powerful tools, I am performing large-scale quantitative measurements on the key components of the Drosophila embryogenesis system. I believe that these measurements will provide an unprecedented chance to advance our understandings on the patterning mechanisms.


Hernan Garcia, Dicke Fellow

Postdoctoral Research Associate/PFEP recipient/Burrows Welcome Career Award recipient

Over the last few years our knowledge of developmental networks of several model organisms has increased dramatically. We now know to a high degree of accuracy which genes talk to each other and how these interactions play out over developmental time. However, we know very little about the microscopic processes involved in those interactions between genes. I’m interested in dissecting the molecular basis of those connections from the quantitative level. The ultimate objective is to put the common analogy between genetic an electronic circuits to test: Can we quantitatively predict the outcome of a genetic circuit given its inputs? In doing so, what can we learn about transcriptional regulation in developmental systems that would escape the more common, qualitative description?


Graduate Students

Mikhail Tikhonov

Physics Graduate Student, Princeton University

I am a third-year graduate student in the Physics department; I received my Master degree from the Ecole Normale Superieure in France. I like changing places and topics; I’ve worked on strong-field laser physics in Moscow, nanowire conductance in Paris and gauge dualities in quantum field theory at Caltech before coming to Princeton. I enjoy experiments, but I am actually a theorist; my interests lie at the intersection of statistical physics, math, information theory and hopefully real life, which is why I finally settled on biophysics here at Princeton. My current project is about studying transcription dynamics in embryonic development of Drosophila using fluorescent imaging techniques with single-molecule precision.


Eric Smith

Physics Graduate Student, Princeton University

I am a second-year graduate student in the Physics Department at Princeton, and I received my bachelor’s degree in physics at Columbia University in 2010. In the Gregor lab, I am interested in transcription dynamics and information processing by cells in the early fruit fly embryo. I am currently constructing a second two-photon confocal microscope for the lab, and I am in the planning stages of building a sub-diffraction microscope to image fruit fly embryos at roughly hundred-nanometer resolution.


Mircea Davidescu

EEB Graduate Student, Princeton University

I am a Ph.D student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and received a double-bachelor degree in Biochemistry and Computer Science from the University of New Brunswick, Canada in 2012. I am interested in collective decision-making and symmetry-breaking in groups, with emphasis on coordination in early diverged animals and tissues. I have received sponsored research internships on a variety of topics ranging from drug discovery at Simon Fraser University, quantum computing at Waterloo University, and 3D visualization at the Universite d’Ottawa. I have also written and published a history book in my spare time. I have held an NSERC Julie Payette scholarship and also currently have been awarded an NSERC PGS D fellowship.


Undergraduate Students

Albert Lin

Physics Sophomore, Princeton University

Albert is a prospective Physics sophomore undergraduate student at Princeton University. He works on quantifying mRNA transcription site activity in living Drosophila embryos.


Darvin Yi

Physics Junior, Princeton University

Darvin is a Physics junior undergraduate student at Princeton University. He works on cell tracking algorithms.