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From Cells to Societies

21.06.2023

Chaitanya Gokhale develops testable hypotheses on a wide variety of biological questions. Since the summer semester of 2023, he has been doing so as a professor for theoretical evolutionary biology at the University of Würzburg.

Chaitanya Gokhale’s work is multifaceted, touching multiple disciplines and often lays the groundwork for innovative experimental research.
Chaitanya Gokhale’s work is multifaceted, touching multiple disciplines and often lays the groundwork for innovative experimental research. (Bild: Lutz Ziegler / Uni Würzburg)

In biology, many researchers specialize in very specific organisms: plants, insects, mammals, microorganisms – and everything in between. Chaitanya Gokhale's work is different, “encompassing dynamics of living systems”,  in a sense, it includes all of the above. As a theoretical biologist, he hypothesizes about a wide variety of scenarios in his field motivated by field and experimental observations.

"The main focus is to understand fundamental processes about how living organisms interact with each other and their environment," he says, describing his research, which he is now continuing at Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU).

At JMU, Gokhale is at the Center for Computational Biology and Theoretical Biology (CCTB).

A Broad Field of Research

Chaitanya Gokhale's theory driven approach often forms the basis for experimental research. This ranges from biogeochemical processes that are the precursors to life, to questions about human society: For instance, in one project, he applies the developed theoretical approach to synthetically engineered yeast cells, revealing the survival tactics of communities in harsh environments. In another, he examines how beliefs shape societies, their benefits, origins and impacts. "An abstract analysis of such diverse topics uncovers the fundamental drivers of living systems. Doing theory, affords one this luxury in breadth of topics but the key lies in acknowledging the uniqueness of each system while identifying the commonalities of living systems at different scales" says Gokhale.

He therefore sums up his research succinctly: 'From cells to societies’.

Access to such detailed understanding across scales of sociobiological complexity can then be eventually leveraged in designing translational applications. Converting the developed theories into applications in agriculture, conservation and medicine, in an interdisciplinary manner is an active pursuit in Prof. Gokhale’s research group.

Focus on Interdisciplinarity

In such a diverse field of work, cooperation with scientists from a wide range of disciplines plays a major role. In biology, for example, the Würzburg focus on microbiology and social insects, such as bees and ants, offers interesting opportunities.

But Gokhale also sees a lot of potential outside the faculty: "Whether it's humanities and social sciences, mathematics or physics, the broad range of courses and expertise at the University of Würzburg really suits my work."

A Special Approach to Natural Sciences

In teaching, the new professor would like to offer students above all a somewhat different approach to natural science subjects: "In my field, biological and humanities topics, such as evolution, ecology or sociology, meet the quantitative subjects such as mathematics and physics. I want to convey that these are not mutually exclusive, but instead can complement each other excellently."

The New Professor’s Career

Born in Pune, a metropolis of millions in western India, Chaitanya Gokhale graduated from the university there with a bachelor's degree in zoology and biotechnology. This was followed by a master's degree in bioinformatics with a focus on biophysics that he developed through a thesis at the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

The biologist then moved to Schleswig-Holstein, where he worked at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, earning his PhD in 2011, associated with the University of Kiel. As a post-doc, he also spent two years at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, in addition to three more years in Plön and a stint at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. As of 2016, Gokhale leads a research group at the Max Planck Institute. He has been involved in projects with the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation and was awarded the Otto Hahn Medal for his work in 2011, among other honors.

Contact

Prof. Dr. Chaitanya S. Gokhale, Center for Computational Biology and Theoretical Biology, E-Mail: chaitanya.gokhale@uni-wuerzburg.de

Von Lutz Ziegler

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