Spotlight on Faculty: Assistant Professor of Physics Sarah Marzen

Last fall, 11 new tenure-track faculty members joined Scripps College. As part of our ongoing series on Scripps’ faculty, the Office of Marketing and Communications sat down with Sarah Marzen to discuss humans’ ability to predict the world around them.

Marketing and Communications: Your research focuses on biological organisms and their ability to predict their environmental input. What does that mean?

Sarah Marzen: We humans predict our world—or at least we try to. We try to predict the weather, what classes we’ll get good grades in, and the people we’ll match with as a partner. There are some researchers in my field who think that humans and other organisms are really good at prediction, so my goal is to test that assumption. Are humans good at prediction? And if we are, how did we develop that skill?

MC: How do you test someone’s environmental prediction skills?

SM: I spent my grad school and post-doc years working on the theory behind environmental prediction accuracy. The first thing you have to account for in a study is chance or luck, which could create a prediction accuracy of up to 50 percent. You also have to account for maximum prediction accuracy, which could be up to 100 percent. Once you figure out those parameters for your study, then you’ll know a subject’s prediction accuracy will fall between chance and the maximum accuracy possible. Defining a “good” prediction rate can be arbitrary, but there are some factors that are undeniable. If a subject’s accuracy is significantly above 50 percent and closer to the maximum prediction accuracy, then that’s a good prediction rate.

My collaborators and I are conducting experiments to test that theory. In our study, we know what the correct prediction should be and what the best predictor possible would predict. Knowing those parameters, we’ll be able to determine whether human predictions are accurate.

MC: What classes are you hoping to teach or develop?

SM: I’d like to develop a mathematical biology class. I’m excited by the ability we might have to understand organisms mathematically.

MC: What’s a fun fact about yourself that you’d like to share with the community?

SM: At various times in my life, I have written music and performed it on the piano.