Alumni Profile

Cristina Marchetti

By: Don Mock

March 2017


In a career spanning 30 years at Syracuse University, Dr. Cristina Marchetti has been a department chair, distinguished professor, endowed academic chair, APS Fellow, AAAS Fellow, and leader in both theoretical and applied physics institutes from coast to coast. Quite impressive! Any one of these would be significant recognition by one’s peers of a scientist’s research and academic accomplishments. At the University of Florida, where Dr. Marchetti received her physics doctorate in 1982 – before all that fame and fortune – she is still vividly remembered as a graduate student who made a big impression on people for her hard work, determination, intellect, and camaraderie. Not one to be intimidated or back down from an argument, especially if the topic was physics, she was someone who, from an early age, displayed a lot of charisma.


Growing up in Pavia, Italy, a university town not far from Milan, Dr. Marchetti went to a high school that specialized in the classics, such as Latin and ancient Greek philosophy. But she also liked math and science, so when she entered the local University of Pavia, she declared her major to be physics. After four years at Pavia, she had what would be the equivalent of a U.S. master’s in physics, but there was no mechanism in Italy to continue her studies and pursue an academic career. Her advisor, Professor Attelio Rigamonti, had a sabbatical at the University of Florida and volunteered to help Cristina navigate the complexities of applying for graduate school in the U.S., a process that seemed like a black-box for a young Italian student. Luckily, she figured out all the paperwork and was accepted at UF with a Fulbright Fellowship travel grant and a research assistant position under Dr. James Dufty, starting in the spring of 1979.


As a graduate student, Dr. Marchetti was well prepared. After just six months she breezed through the physics comprehensive exam and began her research in earnest, starting in kinetic theory and eventually leading to non-equilibrium systems. Working late at night in the depths of Williamson Hall, it was not uncommon for her and the other grad students to end up at a local breakfast house at 4AM, still discussing and arguing about their latest theories. She is credited with being opinionated and outspoken – in a good way – she was able to look broadly at problems and knew what she was talking about. In recognition of her ongoing success as a grad student, she received a Phi Kappa Phi Scholarship, Rotary Foundation Educational Award, University of Florida Graduate Council Fellowship, and Sigma Xi Graduate Research Award.


Dr. Pierre Ramond, who was then a newly arrived professor from Caltech, has an especially fond memory of the time Cristina took a class from him. He had a graduate student who was finishing up at Caltech and was a frequent visitor to the Gainesville campus. Dr. Ramond asked the class to take good care of his student, Mark Bowick, because he didn’t know anyone in town. Cristina jokingly remembers that she treated him so well they ended up getting married. The pairing seems to have worked, as they both have had successful careers in physics, even leading to some recent collaborative work that was featured on the cover of Science (5 September 2014). They also collaborated on having two daughters, Micol (28) and Elena (21), one a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon and Machine Learning Engineer at Uber ATC and the other a senior at Stanford.


Dr. Marchetti received her physics doctorate from UF in 1982 under Dr. Dufty, with a dissertation on Fluctuations in Systems Far from Equilibrium. Since then her research has evolved to specialize on what is now known as ‘active matter’. To quote from Wikipedia: “Active matter is composed of large numbers of active ‘agents’, each of which consumes energy in order to move or to exert mechanical forces. Due to the energy consumption, these systems are intrinsically out of thermal equilibrium.” Think of a flock of starlings, moving in a semi-coordinated fashion called a murmuration. Can one write equations of motion that apply to such a thing? The answer is yes, and such principles can be applied to other examples of active matter, including schools of fish, bacteria, biopolymers, and even self-propelled nanobots. Once you understand the principles underlying active matter, you can start to design chemical and biological systems to achieve specific outcomes. Thus leads the way to future breakthroughs in medicine and materials science. As Cristina relates, “I am currently working with colleagues on using ideas from active matter to study migration of tumor cells in dense tissues. This work may provide a theoretical framework for understanding cancer metastasis.”


Dr. Marchetti has fond memories of her time spent in Gainesville, even though it was initially somewhat of a culture shock. UF’s faculty, staff, her fellow students, and occasionally, a local Italian family, helped her make a successful transition to life in the U.S. As a classic story of an immigrant who worked hard, did well, and made a positive difference in her new homeland, she has certainly lived the American Dream. And as her list of accomplishments from the beginning of this profile can attest, we are all the better for it.