“I try to combine US and European teaching styles”
Anne-Florence Bitbol takes a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching that’s a hit with her students. Named the best teacher in EPFL’s life sciences engineering section for 2023, she encourages students to leave their options open – just as she’s been doing herself for the past 20 years.
Anne-Florence Bitbol could very well have ended up studying the humanities. “But I didn’t exactly leave my decision to a coin toss!” she says. “Almost all the subjects I took in high school interested me: foreign languages, science, math, French literature and more.” So what prompted her to select a scientific track? “It allowed me to keep my options open and delay specialization for as long as possible.” But when it came time to enroll in university, she had no choice but to make a decision. “I thought about what I was the most afraid of losing, and I realized it was the rigor of scientific reasoning,” she says. But instead of mathematics, Bitbol opted to major in physics. “The applications in physics seemed more concrete, and the field would still let me develop solid quantitative skills,” she says. She then chose biology for her electives and extra classes.
After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in physics from ENS Lyon, she obtained a Master’s degree in the same subject from Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris and a PhD from Paris Diderot University. Throughout her studies, Bitbol adhered to a single philosophy: “I believe there are many ways of approaching a given research field – a number of doors just waiting to be opened.” Along the same lines, she feels there are real benefits to be had in pulling together several disciplines, taking the best from each one. “While I was doing my PhD” – on the statistics and dynamics of complex membranes – “I began to explore the interface between theoretical physics and biology by studying cellular membranes. To take my research further, I started using computational methods,” she says. For her postdoc, she decided to combine physics and biology more intimately and joined the biophysics theory research group at Princeton University.
Today Bitbol is an assistant professor at EPFL, where she’s been the head of the Laboratory of Computational Biology and Theoretical Biophysics since 2020. She performs research that uses concepts from physics, along with mathematical models and computational approaches, to describe biological processes. For instance, she’s looking at how phylogeny and physical constraints affect the sequence-function mapping in proteins. She’s also studying how the evolution of microbial populations is impacted by their spatial structure, and by changes in their environment – with applications to the study of antimicrobial resistance and gut bacteria.
Encouraging students to speak up
“If I had to choose a major again, I’d probably choose a more cross-disciplinary track,” says Bitbol. “That would have lined up better with my vision of research – and my personality in general!” It’s therefore no surprise that she took to EPFL’s bioengineering department “like a fish to water.” Or that she draws from several disciplines when teaching her students. “The class I won the award for – which is both an honor and an encouragement – teaches students how to extract information from biological data. I show them how methods from physics, mathematics and computer science can be applied to analyze biological processes involving complex datasets. Technically, the data can be modeled using probabilities.”
The class is called “Randomness and Information in Biological Data”, and it gives Bitbol an opportunity to adopt the different teaching styles she saw in France and the US. “I spent a lot of time analyzing and comparing the different approaches used at universities in the two countries,” she says. Now she tries to draw on the best aspects from each one. “Classes in the US are much more interactive than in France,” she explains. “I discussed this at length with my colleagues, and decided that the best approach sits between the two. That is, to create an atmosphere that encourages students to speak up, but without letting the classroom discussion dominate.”
At Princeton, Bitbol also saw how important it is to let students explore complex topics by running simulations and developing computer models. “This enables students to become familiar with computer programming, and shows them we can still study real-world problems even if they can’t be solved exactly,” she says. Empowerment is another concept Bitbol picked up in the US, where it’s widely practiced. “I encourage students to be proactive and take ownership of the class material – I give them anonymous quizzes, for example.” To that end, she relies on the resources provided by EPFL’s Teaching Support Center. What Bitbol appreciates in the French approach is “the methodical way in which formal methods are applied and the focus on giving students a sound theoretical basis.” These are things she incorporates into her classes today.
But most of all, Bitbol aims to equip students with methods they can use in just about any biology-oriented field, like neuroscience or gene sequencing. “I teach students who are generally in the final year of their Bachelor’s programs,” she says. “That’s a pivotal moment in their studies, and we need to help them leave all their options open.” That’s called preaching what you practice.