Alex Klotz, Physicist

Photo by Sean DuFrene

I am a physics professor at California State University, Long Beach. My specialty is biophysics, which as the name suggests is at the interface of physics and biology, and I’m interested in using materials from the natural world to answer fundamental physics questions. Evolution has had billions of years of practice to engineer neat materials, while we have only been doing it for a few thousand. I spent a few years looking at knots in DNA to understand how entanglements between in and between molecules affect the mechanical properties of things made out of molecules. Now I study DNA structures called kinetoplasts, which are basically sheets of chainmail made of thousands of linked DNA loops. They look like tiny jellyfish and are found in the mitochondria of certain parasites. Among other things, I’m trying to use them to answer questions about the physics of 2D materials that are important for bringing materials like graphene (single-layer carbon) to actual technological use. Totally unrelated to my work with DNA, I also wrote a paper calculating how long it would take to fall through a tunnel through the center of the Earth (38 minutes), which was all over the news for a few days back in 2015.

I also dabble in outreach; I kept a blog about my various science thoughts and adventures for a few year and volunteer for programs like NetPals and Skype-a-Scientist. I’m hoping to start a similar program here in Long Beach. Right now the most outreachy thing I do is make dumb science jokes on twitter, which mainly reach other scientists.

My favorite part of being a scientist is figuring something out that nobody has figured out before, it is an amazing feeling. I remember the first “discovery” I made during my senior thesis in college and the few that I made over the next few years. Now I’m lucky enough that I get to discover new things a few times a year. I’m training several students in my lab and I hope they get to feel that as well.

A kinetoplast, which is a network of about 5000 linked DNA rings, is seen here under a microscope moving along with a flowing liquid. Its shape changes from a folded taco to a flat frisbee as it moves. Scale bar is 5 microns, about one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.

My main hobby the last few years has been road biking, which I like as a way to experience the outdoors, meet people while not having to talk non-stop, and stay fit and active. It was a pretty good hobby to have during the pandemic when there was nothing else to do. I used to play ultimate frisbee, but I’ve been injured for a few years. I like animals although I don’t currently have any pets. Another pandemic hobby I picked up was walking around the neighborhood every morning and meeting all the outdoor cats. I just moved a month ago so I have to meet all the new cats.

I won’t say too much about the path I took and how you should follow it, because it involves a good deal of privilege and luck. My advice to graduate students is to attend as many seminars as you can, not just in your own sub-sub-sub-field of research. You learn a lot about your discipline that will come in handy later, you can make good contacts, and you can get ideas that you may be able to apply to your work.

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