Kevin Zhou: Seeking new stories about the physical world

Kevin Zhou wants to tell new stories about the physical world we inhabit.

“My life plan has always been to eventually become a theoretical physicist,” says the MIT senior.  

The plan seems to be working. About to graduate with dual degrees in physics and mathematics, Zhou is a co-author on three papers being published this month in peer-reviewed journals. This fall, he will head to Cambridge University as a 2017 Marshall Scholar.

Zhou hopes the Marshall Scholarship will provide him the time and resources to explore his varied interests, which encompass thermodynamics, particle phenomenology, and biophysics. “If I went straight to a PhD program, a lot of doors would instantly close, and I might not ever know about other possibilities,” he says.

Zhou will spend the first year at Cambridge studying applied mathematics and theoretical physics, and the second year studying particle physics at Durham University, home to the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology. “I’m going to explore all around,” he says with an eager smile.

Beyond his study of math and physics at MIT, Zhou has pursued burgeoning interests in music and economics, computer science, public policy, and machine learning — all while conducting rigorous and original research in two different physics labs.

With Jeremy England, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Career Development Associate Professor of Physics at MIT and leader of the Physics of Living Systems Group, Zhou has been exploring the thermodynamic constraints of living systems.

Zhou sought out England as a mentor after reading his work on the theoretical limits of how efficient cells can be at reproducing. “I thought [his work] was really mind-blowing, because it’s [about] really powerful mathematical constraints that are being used for life, which we think of as messy and difficult to characterize,” he says.

“We were investigating the cost of maintaining certain kinds of order in nonequilibrium states,” he explains. “Thermodynamically, everything wants to relax back to equilibrium. In equilibrium, energy would be distributed uniformly. This coffee cup will eventually be the same temperature as the rest of the room.”

But life has to maintain itself in nonequilibrium states. At the cellular level, nutrients, waste products, and chromosomes are corralled or clustered in specific places. “So the question is, just from the mathematical structure of thermodynamics, what kind of chemical and energetic costs are there to maintaining this structure?” he says.

Zhou’s work has focused on identifying these kinds of theoretical bounds, as a way to characterize how “expensive” it is for cells to perform functions such as DNA repair.

“We haven’t found the secret of life, obviously,” he laughs, “but we hope to find more constraints like this that give a hint as to what cells can do and what they can’t.”

Searching for new particles

Zhou has also pursued a totally…

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