In this blog post, we feature an Interview with Dr. Evan Curcio, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the City University of New York School of Public Health (CUNY SPH). Dr. Curcio recently obtained his PhD in Biomathematics from North Carolina State University.

When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?

In some sense, I have been interested in mathematics and biology for as long as I can remember. My mother and father shared with me early on their fascinations with biology and physics, respectively. Throughout middle school and high school, I was fortunate to have some incredible teachers who beautifully communicated the wonder of their respective fields. I enjoyed these subjects immensely, eventually declaring a biology major at my undergraduate institution in the pre-health track, which allowed me to continue taking chemistry, physics, and calculus as well. It wasn’t until I joined a research group at the beginning of my sophomore year that I gained a newfound respect for wet lab research. I was trying (and failing) to inoculate yeast with new fluorescent proteins to be used by the lab for cooperation/coevolution experiments. It took my lab partner and I months of trial and error to finally achieve what could be done in a matter of days or weeks by the graduate students in the lab – all due to a simple mistake in our protocol which we should have caught sooner. I confessed to the PI that maybe this wasn’t for me – I was instead going to declare a mathematics major. She let me borrow a copy of JD Murray’s Mathematical Biology; this was when I became aware of the existence of this inter/multi-disciplinary field, and as they say, the rest is history.

Was the decision to do a Ph.D. an obvious and easy choice?

Obvious, maybe – easy, absolutely not. After completing my master’s degree and working in data analysis for a few years in industry, I applied to PhD programs as a last-ditch effort to get back to mathematical biology. I thought, at 27, I was (or would soon become) too old to go back to school, that I had forgotten the difficult math I would need to know on day one, and I knew that by joining a graduate program I would likely lose five years of salary with no guarantee that an academic job was waiting on the other side. However, I knew enough about myself to know that I would never forgive myself if I didn’t try. Most of my fears were unwarranted – I wasn’t the oldest student in the program, I quickly relearned what I needed for those first semester classes, and my savings from those four years of working helped cushion the financial blow. I did have to relearn how to live like a college student again in my late 20s/early 30s. I was fortunately privileged to have had no major health issues or dependents to consider – had my life circumstances and finances been slightly different, I would not have been able to afford to make the decision. Universities can and should better support graduate students and postdocs with regards to these financial and medical necessities if they want to retain their highly educated, highly skilled talent. Looking back, I would have made the same choice, however, I would be less cavalier about the impact it would have on my own stability, as well as on my friends, family, and partner who supported me through it. It was a difficult, personal decision, and not one that anyone should make lightly.

What are the main biological research questions that you are interested in?

My dissertation focused on three research questions in two biological systems. In short, they study biomechanics in the context of development and morphogenesis. The first system is the notochord – a defining structure of chordates. In vertebrates, it acts as a template for the spine. The zebrafish notochord is composed of vacuolated inner cells which are closely packed in a cylindrical, epithelial sheath, which connect to external structures via extracellular matrix. Not much is known about the material properties of these cells, so we thought to model the inner (vacuolated) and outer (sheath) cells as a foam packed in one of two typical configurations, varying the surface tension ratio between the outer and inner ‘cells’ to gauge impact on the overall morphology at this specific developmental stage. Next, we used a second model treating the notochord cell surfaces as physical membranes – imagine a material like taut, inflated plastic wrap – to assess how difference in packing pattern affects flexural rigidity of the structure during three-point bending tests. The final question is related to stomach morphogenesis in X. laevis. Given that the stomach gains its trademark J-shaped curvature by asymmetrical (differential) growth, we sought to answer which growth schemes have the potential to induce realistic morphological changes via short-term growth and sustained growth models. Our simulations point to transversely isotropic cell intercalation or oriented cell division – it is up to experimentalists to determine if either, or both, are truly responsible for the shape change we observe in vivo.

What types of questions do you think will be important to answer in the future in your field?

There are two questions which have seemed to be recurring themes during my graduate studies. These topics generate a lot of discussion, so further research into them would be very beneficial to the field. They are: 1) The interplay between genetics and mechanics in biology generally, and 2) understanding why some processes “seem” stochastic/probabilistic and some “seem” deterministic at different scales of organization, and how this gap underscores the complicated search for quantitative “laws of nature” in biology. Another example – the emergence of coordinated behavior at scale is a complex and fascinating question I hope I will be able to work on someday. Rather than pontificate further, I will point the reader to the following note, which contains a fruitful workshop discussion among professionals much more knowledgeable than I.

Madzvamuse A, Lubkin SR. A note on how to develop interdisciplinary collaborations between experimentalists and theoreticians. Interface Focus. 2016 Oct 6;6(5):20160069. (

What mathematical and computational tools do you find useful in your work?

Throughout my graduate studies I have used or spent some time exploring, in no particular order: Amira, Dragonfly, CompuCell3D, Surface Evolver, COMSOL Multiphysics, ANSYS, Mathematica, MATLAB, Maple, SAS, JMP, R, and Python. Mathematical/physical ‘tools’ that I have found useful include continuum mechanics/morphoelasticity, finite element method, and various forms of physical modeling, including Cellular Potts and physics of foams.   I will say, however, that it is not enough to simply have an arsenal of mathematical and computational tools at your disposal – it is also important to understand the underlying physical, chemical, or biological process of the specific system of interest to inform your choice of approach. I am of the opinion that it is better to find the best tool for the problem being investigated, rather than to always rely on the tool or technique with which you are already familiar. Tools and languages are constantly changing, so it’s beneficial to be able to pick up new things when necessary.

What makes you passionate about your work?

The field is so dynamic and vast! In the same day I can speak with theoretical immunologists who are doing data-driven modeling in cancer dynamics, biophysicists who model tissue behavior from first principles, bioengineers constructing organoids, computer scientists employing machine learning for radiology, mathematicians applying topological data analysis in filamentous networks or algebraic statistics in viral phylogenetics. Working in an interdisciplinary field means I’m surrounded by people who tear down the rigid, arbitrary walls that are constructed between disciplines. It’s a pleasure to work with others who enjoy the challenge of rigorously quantifying biology.

What do you like to do in your spare time outside of work?

When I am not cooking or baking, you will usually find me reading or watching science fiction, out at karaoke or a concert, learning a song on acoustic guitar, or exploring the city/outdoors.