Teaching biological physics to undergraduates

A leaf. Aspects of photosynthesis can be discussed as part of quantum mechanics. Credit: Joanie Cahill

Back in 2005 the EPSRC International Review of Physics said: “The Panel observed that the majority of the internationally visible biophysics research is not conducted in physics departments”. This was a sentiment that resonated with the 2008 Wakeham Review, which remarked “physics students in many departments get regrettably little exposure, if any, to modern soft matter physics and biophysics”.

Leaving aside the potential excitements of the STFC portfolio of science (i.e. astronomy, cosmology and particle physics aspects of the subject), on the EPSRC-side of things there remains the danger that students get taught only about ‘conventional’ condensed matter physics, properties of the hard (in a mechanical sense) stuff like magnetic materials and semiconductors.

Few departments still use the phrase “solid state physics” to describe this sort of course, but traditionally it was these materials that tend to be taught under the condensed matter banner in the majority of departments and, regrettably, it appears still to be the case. Important though they may be, it is not all that matters in the condensed world. So, in an attempt to facilitate the introduction of a bit more about softer, biological materials into the undergraduate curriculum, the IOP initiated a project to prepare teaching materials about biological physics that any department could use in the way they thought best fitted into their course structures.

The project was set up in 2009 and the material is now complete and up on the web for anyone to access at the IOP’s Biological Physics website, being relaunched this week. This material is designed so that it can either be used in its entirety to construct a complete module or dipped into for inspiration for material and examples to insert into traditional courses. But most particularly it is designed to be accessible and useful to those who are not themselves experts in the field. Thus the hope is that all physics departments will be enabled to introduce some biological material into their curriculum, somewhere, so that all students get exposed to the idea that physics has something to offer the life sciences. Moreover, to convince them – and indeed the faculty – that this ‘something’ is intellectually challenging: just because something is alive rather than inanimate it still obeys the laws of physics!

By creating modules that can, if desired, be used in a self-contained way, yet building on familiar topics, it ought to be possible for departments to use the material even when their teachers are experts only in the harder sort of materials. What is required is a grounding in statistical thermodynamics more than in any other part of the curriculum. However, the danger is that those in charge of the course structure may not think about introducing such a module unless someone in the department is already an expert who is willing and able to fight the corner for biological physics. The IOP has so far shied away from explicitly requiring this material to be taught in order for a degree to be accredited, but it is conceivable that that is what it will take for every department to take the plunge.

However, even if a full module cannot be squeezed in, anyone with curiosity about the topic ought to be able to find a space to introduce some biological examples into a traditional course. I currently teach first year waves and optics and it is trivial to discuss X-ray diffraction from protein crystals and DNA as an example of probing periodic structures (that way I can sneak in a bit of gender balance in the form of Rosalind Franklin too); I also have a neat video from Joe Howard and collaborators of the beating of bull sperm, which is a much more interesting version of a ‘wave on a string’ than simply a video of someone waving a piece of string up and down. Want to discuss fluctuations – what better than in the context of the behaviour of the lipid membrane of a cell? In quantum mechanics there is scope to discuss aspects of photosynthesis. And so the list goes on. Dip your toe into the material on the website and see if you can find something to excite you that you can sneak into your current teaching.

Finally, for those who are more convinced by the possibility of money and funding than the commentary of the Wakeham Report, it is worth pointing out that one of EPSRC’s Grand Challenges is in the Understanding the Physics of Life. Thus, if researchers are going to benefit from this and be able to collaborate with life science researchers, they need to be at least a little familiar with the vocabulary even if they aren’t going to move too far themselves in this direction. For their own benefit, as well as that of their undergraduates, they may find material of interest on the Biological Physics website.

So go on: what are you waiting for? Have a read and enjoy!


Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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