Prof. Roberto Cerbino has a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Milan, and is an Associate Professor there of Medical and Applied Physics. He has been a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and a visiting researcher at the University of Ottawa, Canada. His experimental reserach activity is in the field of soft condensed matter, including biological matter, mostly for the optical characterization of the structure and dynamics of particles and microorganisms. He is the author of 45 peer-reviewed publications indexed on SCOPUS/ISI-Web of Science, and four book chapters.
Erik Campano: What do you love about your subject, biophysics?
Prof. Cerbino: I like the idea that you can build simple models to understand complex systems, and in particular the human body, which is a wonderful machine. What I also find particularly fascinating is that the math and the physics needed to describe exactly “how we work” would require skills that go beyond what is expected from the average MD student. However, the principles that govern these complex phenomena can be made simpler by approximating, and I love to think that biophysics is the art of approximation.
Please tell us something fascinating about your professional scientific research work.
I work in soft condensed matter science, a large worldwide interdisciplinary effort aimed at understanding the properties and the behaviour of those materials that cannot be simply classified as solids or liquids, because they have a schizophrenic nature: sometimes they flow like liquids, while some other times they behave as solids. In the last months or so, I have devoted most of my efforts toward the understanding of the behaviour of epithelial cell monolayers. It turns out that this soft system, which is the lab equivalent of a real tissue, shares more than one might think with inanimate soft matter. By using the same tools that we previously developed to measure inert soft materials, we were able to capture the structural and dynamic properties of cells in a collective, by linking their increased motility to the onset of metastatic dissemination.
What is it that you enjoy about teaching at IMS?
Teaching physics at IMS is a continuous challenge, because IMS differs substantially from similar programs held in Italian here at the University of Milan. The international environment, and large heterogeneity of the class in terms of skills and interests, do contribute in making our life here as teachers a bit more difficult but, at the same time, a bit more exciting. In recent years, I used students’ feedback and my personal feeling to rethink the course, sometimes even radically. Each year, I change the sequence and the content of my lectures, in an attempt to maximise the transfer of information and the satisfaction of both the students and myself. Of course, I am far away from perfection, but I’ll keep on trying!
Please share some wisdom about how to be a great medical student.
Not having been a medical student myself, I can only report what my M.D. friends have told me repeatedly over the years, which can be summarized as “Damn! If I only had studied physics a bit better. Now I need it and I realise that I didn’t study it well enough”. And, I add, this is probably true for other disciplines as well. I understand exactly how they feel and what they mean. My personal advice is: Always think. Be curious and positively critical. Try to change your angle. Take your time to understand because understanding is forever. If you succeed, you will be for sure a good physicist, but, curiously, also a great physician!
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