Max Bi was 14 years old when his parents moved from Beijing to New York to create more opportunities for their only child.
“It was for me to get a better education,” says Bi, an assistant professor of physics at Northeastern. “The competition is fierce in China, and I wasn’t a top student in middle school. I probably would not have done well on the college entrance exam.”
From those uncertain beginnings, Bi’s academic prospects have taken a quantum leap. But he isn’t the type to show off. Bi explains the work he does with Northeastern’s theoretical soft matter and biophysics group in the kind of everyday English that he learned as a teenaged immigrant two decades ago.
“What I do is at the interface of physics and biology,” Bi says. “One of the focuses has been to look at the collective behavior of biological cells in tissues.”
His research could improve cellular treatments for cancer, asthma, and other diseases associated with skin and similar tissues within the linings of the body. In recognition of his work, the National Science Foundation has honored Bi with a Faculty Early Career Development Program (known as CAREER) award, which goes to junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research and education.
The groundbreaking nature of Bi’s career lay far beyond the imagination of Dapeng Bi (his full name) as he grew up in Beijing. He was, by the standards of his home nation, a late bloomer.
“My parents saw the writing on the wall that I wasn’t going to do too well in the national college entrance exam, which is really competitive in China,” Bi says. “Education there is rigid. You have to study nonstop for three years in high school, and then you take the entrance exam—and that decides your whole life.”
Bi’s mother knew little English and was homesick when they moved to New York. His father, who had been an engineer in China, started a small business in Brooklyn selling plumbing supplies. They settled in Queens, and Bi attended public high school in Forest Hills.
“They were not ‘tiger’ or ‘helicopter’ parents,” Bi says. “I was given a lot of freedom. As a child, my father was telling me all sorts of interesting tidbits about science.”
Bi remembers his father teaching him a method for estimating the value of pi when he was six or seven years old; and, later, the characteristics of heavy water that enable the extraction of nuclear energy from a reactor. These lessons contributed to Bi’s childhood dream of becoming a chemist who would work on nuclear reactors.
An introductory course in chemistry at Binghamton University in upstate New York taught Bi that he needed to look elsewhere. He quickly found his niche in physics.
“It was more to my liking because you don’t have to memorize as much as in chemistry—you have to remember a few concepts and equations, and then you think about how to apply them,” Bi says. “What I like most is the beauty and elegance of physics. You start with a few simple concepts, and then everything can be constructed, very much like in mathematics.”
For several years before Bi came to Northeastern in 2016, he had been exploring problems of biology by applying the concepts and tools of physics. A large part of his work was focused on the movement of cells.
When the skin suffers a cut or injury, cells move quickly to heal the wound. The migration of cells can also cause harm, resulting in the metastasis of cancer to other parts of the body or the deleterious movement that contributes to asthma. Bi wanted to know what drives cells to stay in place, and what makes them take off?
In collaboration with researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bi came up with a cell-shape index: Cells with a more complicated shape (resulting in a larger perimeter) are more likely to move around, he found.
Part of Bi’s CAREER award will be applied to understanding how the movement of cells can be influenced by the curvature and shape of the surface upon which they reside.
“It turns out, the surface that the cells are moving around on can matter a lot, especially in tissues that are naturally spheres or tubes,” says Bi, who offers an example of weather systems moving across the planet. “The hurricanes and jet streams and weather patterns that we see, they’re very much a byproduct of the Earth being a spherical surface. And that is an analogy for the cells: They can only move in a certain way because of the topology and the geometry of the surface.”
Bi says he has been mentored by Armen Stepanyants, a physics professor who heads the Neurogeometry Lab at Northeastern, and Herbert Levine, university distinguished professor of physics and bioengineering. Levine says he was drawn to Northeastern in 2019 by his appreciation for Bi’s research.
“I think he’s fantastic,” Levine says. “He’s written several papers which have had a huge impression on the field of how expanding ideas in physics can make them applicable to biological systems. He’s been one of the best people at doing that in the last few years.”
Bi’s collaborations with Harvard and MIT have helped bring life to his theories.
“On the one hand, Max pushes forward the physics part—the analysis part, the methodology part,” Levine says. “But at the same time, he works with these different experimental groups to try to apply his ideas in real time, both in the healthy developmental context and also now in the disease-relevant context.”
In addition to funding Bi’s research, his CAREER award also supports recommendations he is making to Boston-area educators (kindergarten through grade 12) to enrich their physics programs.
“I want to show them that physics concepts can be applied to biology,” Bi says. “I know a lot of students take physics not because they like it, but because they want to go to medical school. If they see why physics is important in biology and the medical sciences, perhaps they will take it more seriously—and not just to pass their entrance exam to medical school.”