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Nora Martin - Independent Fellow

  09 Jan 2024
Nora Martin

Nora Martin started at the Barcelona Collaboratorium at the beginning of July 2023 as our second Independent Fellow, joining us from the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford. Nora is now looking for a PhD student who enjoys building computational and mathematical models of complex systems. 

We have met with her to find out a bit more about her research, her goals and her experience at the Barcelona Collaboratorium.


Tell us a bit about yourself.
I have always enjoyed applying mathematical concepts and a problem-solving approach to scientific topics, and so I chose to pursue an MPhys in Physics at the University of Oxford. Inspired by the wealth of fascinating research at the biology/physics interface, I specialised on genotype-phenotype maps and evolution for my PhD at the University of Cambridge and a subsequent postdoc at Oxford. Beyond research, I enjoy mentoring, outreach and taking an active role in my academic community – I served as Vice President of Gates Cambridge Scholars Council in 2019/20. I am very excited to start as an Independent Fellow at the Collaboratorium.  


Tell us a bit about your research.
Biological complexity at all levels, from single molecules to organisms, is a product of evolution. Therefore, quantitative and predictive models of evolution could have applications for a range of biological questions, from the evolution of disease-causing viruses to the analysis of evolved sequences in rapidly growing macromolecular databases.

My work uses modelling and theory to elucidate a key component of quantitative models of evolution: molecular and phenotypic changes introduced by variation through random mutations. This is addressed using the general framework of a genotype-phenotype (GP) map. GP maps describe how genotypic changes are translated to higher-order phenotypic characteristics. One central model in the field focuses on mutational changes in folded RNA secondary structures. Results from established models like RNA have a broad relevance because they can often be applied to other examples, ranging from other macromolecules to beyond the molecular scale.


What do you think is the most exciting thing about your work?
Evolution is omnipresent in the world around us, and it is an incredibly complex process – this combination is what makes it a very exciting topic for me as a scientist.


How do you think working at the Collaboratorium will help you accomplish your research goals?
The Independent Fellow position is a unique opportunity for me as an early-career scientist to lead my own research projects and accomplish my goals with a small team.  The Collaboratorium is an excellent environment because it facilitates interaction with scientists from different disciplines and research institutes, especially CRG and EMBL.


How do you see your work evolving over the next few years?
By improving genotype-phenotype map models, my aim is to increase their biological realism and thus make progress towards models that can be compared directly to the rapidly increasing amount of available biological data.


How important do you think collaboration is to achieving your goals?
The concepts of genotype-phenotype maps and evolution apply to many scales: from single molecules to gene regulatory networks and tissues and beyond. Therefore, I am very excited to be at the Collaboratorium, which brings together scientists with many areas of expertise.


What would you say to scientist that are considering visiting the Collaboratorium?
The Collaboratorium is an excellent place to work, but also a great place to visit – even if you are only here for a short time, you can listen to a range of seminars and build collaborations, both at the Collaboratorium and with Barcelona’s wider scientific network.


What is the best advice you have been given in your career?
Not to be afraid to go beyond the “classic” disciplinary boundaries.