[The University of Texas at Austin: What starts here changes the world]
[Photo of Vernita Gordon]

Vernita Gordon

Assistant Professor

Areas of ResearchExperimental biological physics; multicellular systems; the role of physics and spacial structure in developmental and evolutionary systems; biological physics and engineering of membranes
OfficeRLM 14.206
Phone(512) 471-5187
Home Pagehttp://chaos.utexas.edu/people/faculty/vernita-gordon

Growing up in rural and suburban Georgia, I read copious amounts of science fiction and drank in Star Trek like a sponge. From this, I decided very early on that I wanted to be an astronaut. Then I read somewhere that there were only two pathways to being a NASA astronaut: you could be a rock-star test pilot and get to be mission commander or co-pilot, or you could be a PhD-level scientist or engineer and be a mission specialist. Nearsightedness prevented me (or so I thought, I never deeply investigated) from being a test pilot, so I knew I needed to go into some kind of science or engineering field. This plan was strongly supported by my parents, who are math and science teachers (but who are in no way responsible for my science fiction obsession, which bewilders them to this day).

My senior year in high school, I took my first physics class. One day, the teacher was applying momentum to how a rocket works: stuff comes backwards out the tail of the rocket, so conservation of momentum means the rocket moves forward. I asked, “The rocket is losing mass all the time it’s firing, so how can anyone ever predict what it will do? How can anyone design a launch plan or a mission?” (You can see I was still very into the astronaut plan.) My teacher told me that there was a way to understand and mathematically predict this, but you had to use calculus. She didn’t go into any deeper explanation, because this was not a calculus-based class and only about half the students were taking calculus at that time. I thought this was really cool, and it made me realize that there was a LOT more to learn about physics, and that I had only scratched the surface so far. This was the biggest influence in my decision to enter college as a physics major.

During college, I kept mentally vacillating about whether physics was really what I wanted to do (I was also tempted by a Classics major, despite its total lack of astronaut-applicability), but physics was fun enough that I stayed with that. Sometime in college my astronaut ambition began waning, but I thought that being faculty (and maybe part-time astronaut) seemed like fun, so I went to graduate school. In graduate school, I learned that I enjoyed research far more than I had expected. A big part of that enjoyment came from learning that, contrary to my expectations, research could be a very social, collaborative, interpersonal process, and that good research involved a great deal of creativity.

I enjoyed research enough in grad school that I went on to do two postdocs. In the process of doing the first postdoc, I realized that I was very interested in biological physics, especially work that impinged on biomedical topics, where I could see that people’s lives could one day be improved by the work I did. I also realized that I really enjoyed thinking about biological systems that are cell-sized and larger. During my second postdoc, I met my husband, who is a computer scientist (and an avid tea-drinker, to which he has almost converted me).

My group works on biological physics experiments to try to understand how cells interact with each other and with their environment, and how these interactions give rise to different types of multicellular behavior. The model systems we study are either pathogenic systems that are important in human disease, or systems that have potential for therapeutic use as well as basic biophysics investigations.

Physics Faculty
Physical Science
Administrative Staff
PCG Staff