Written by
Jerimiah Oetting, for the Office of the Dean for Research 
Jan. 28, 2021

It was another long day in the lab at Harvard Medical School, where Brangwynne would often work late nights, staring at cells. Sometimes he spent so much time staring at cells through the microscope that the cells would follow him home, their shapes imprinted on his vision. Walking late at night, he’d see them dancing over the buildings and the empty streets and sidewalks.

Though Brangwynne was in his college years, he wasn’t a student — in fact, some would call him a dropout. He’d been enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University, a first-generation college student, when a mixture of burnout and wanderlust prompted him to take a year off midway through his degree. At first he thought he would take a yearlong trip to Latin America. But he was interested in materials science — he liked how it described the world in terms of math and physics. He also loved biology: he loved that innumerable cells could self-assemble into organisms that eventually walk around and talk about philosophy.

Brangwynne suspected that his two interests, biology and materials science, were more connected than his coursework suggested.

“I knew the two fields were related, because cells are doing all these crazy things that reflect weird material properties and states — flowing and oozing and moving around,” said Brangwynne, the June K. Wu ’92 Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and director of the Princeton Bioengineering Initiative. “But the biologists I would talk to knew nothing about the materials, and the materials people I talked to knew nothing about biology.”