Introducing... James DiFrisco

This week we welcomed a new group leader, James DiFrisco. James is a philosopher of science whose research at the Crick will largely focus on developing new theoretical frameworks and models for the study of biological complexity.
Profile image of James Difrisco

James' bio

Find out more about James' career so far


Tell us about your career so far

I started off doing a bachelor's in philosophy near where I grew up in the United States, and one of my professors at the time encouraged me to head to Europe for graduate school. While writing a master's thesis on the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, I discovered that it was possible to combine philosophy with natural science and get something much more powerful than what philosophy alone could deliver, and I became possessed with the idea of figuring out how to do that.

After finishing up my PhD at KU Leuven's Institute of Philosophy I went to an interdisciplinary research centre called the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Austria, where I began to collaborate with biologists with a focus on theoretical issues in evolutionary-developmental biology.

After three years there, I returned to KU Leuven on a research fellowship that allowed me to do visiting stays in biology groups elsewhere, and I spent some time with groups in Oslo and at Yale. Over the years I made some progress on that earlier guiding idea of combining biology and philosophy, but I feel there is still a lot to be figured out.

Where were you before joining the Crick?

I was at KU Leuven in Belgium. I had developed a few interdisciplinary projects there over the years. One was about understanding the core ideas of evo-devo through the lens of dynamical systems theory. The most recent one is about whether traits shared across wide evolutionary groups can be traced back to shared developmental mechanisms. I plan to continue working on that at the Crick.

What attracted you to the Crick?

I like to be in an environment where I can learn new science and think through some of the core challenges in biology--those of a conceptual nature, at least--together with the people who understand and experience those challenges most directly. One thing that sets the Crick apart from a lot of modern universities is that there are no departments, and it really incentivises working with people from huge range of fields.

What will your lab be working on?

Over the years I made some progress on that earlier guiding idea of combining biology and philosophy, but I feel there is still a lot to be figured out.
James DiFrisco

We will be something of a generalist group, but our special focus and expertise will be on the more theoretical issues in evolutionary-developmental biology. I am interested in what new data from single-cell transcriptomics tell us about cell types and tissue types, and in developing models and frameworks that allow extrapolating results of such studies from model organisms to evolutionarily related species.

We will also be thinking about general mechanisms for the evolutionary origination of novel morphological traits like cell types, tissues, and organs. Another key issue will be to investigate how evolutionary genetics and more developmental perspectives on evolution can be better integrated.

Most broadly, I think the time is ripe for a rehabilitation of "theoretical biology" and I want to think through what that is and what it could be. I have always worked on a pretty wide variety of topics and plan to continue doing so.

How are you settling into life at the Crick/how is the move going from what you were doing previously?

The sheer number of practicalities to manage when moving countries and starting a new job can be daunting, but so far it's been smoother than I'd expected. That being said, I'm looking forward to working on research again instead of moving boxes and disassembling furniture.

How have you found setting up your lab so far?

Stepping into a role as a manager of research and not just a researcher has required some adjustments of mindset. Nonetheless, so far it's going well and the administrative support staff at the Crick have been immensely helpful.

Who are you looking forward to working with at the Crick?

I'm enthusiastic about working with anyone who has an interesting problem I can help with. As far as specific people, I'd love to work with James Briscoe and Margarida Cardoso Moreira. I am also really looking forward to working with the junior researchers in my own group. 

What job would you be doing in an alternate universe?

Maybe a musician. I've played drums since I was young and used to play with a jazz group around Chicago during college. In the last year I've started learning classical guitar. So I guess I'm finding ways to keep a part of that alternate path in this universe.

Sign up for our newsletters

Join our mailing lists to receive updates about our latest research and to hear about our free public events and exhibitions.  If you would like to find out more about how we manage your personal information please see our privacy policy.