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How relevant is biophysics in biology?

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How relevant is "biophysics" in biology?

I'm making a decision between studying biochemistry at school A, or biophysics at school B. School A is bigger and more well known, especially for its life sciences, while only school B offers me the option of studying biophysics. This is undergraduate and I do plan to continue onto graduate studies.

I realize they are very different, but to me they just offer different approaches to the same underlying field that I'm interested in, which is cell biology. I like chemistry, but physics much more so (though biophysics has a large biochemistry component anyway). I see interesting research in biophysics like quantitative analysis of cellular functions and dynamic modelling of systems. It looks like the better fit for me, but cell biology is dominated by biochemically focused research. So my question is: how relevant is physics really in the field of biology, aside from the development of tools and techniques to study biology?

Currently I see my interests in the area of systematic and computational analysis of biological processes (of course that is subject to change as I learn more details). BTW I have a computer engineering degree from school A and have been working as a software developer (long story). I hope to make use of this background but would rather not have it as my primary focus.

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  • #2
Andy Resnick
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I'm biased, but I think Physics has a lot to contribute to the study of living systems and human health. That said, I also see a lot of "biology without biology" in biophysical research- if you want to solve biological problems, it's worthwhile to spend some time learning biology.
 
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I'm biased, but I think Physics has a lot to contribute to the study of living systems and human health. That said, I also see a lot of "biology without biology" in biophysical research- if you want to solve biological problems, it's worthwhile to spend some time learning biology.
That's my feeling as well. Life science is such a broad and complex topic that surely physics can offer unique insights to compliment the biochemical perspective. I'm personally leaning towards biophysics, but I just wanted to see if there's some glaringly obvious reason that I really should pick biochemistry instead before I make a decision.

As for learning actual biology, the biophysics program has a pretty significant biochemistry component (http://students.sfu.ca/calendar/physics/biological_phys_maj.html [Broken])
 
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  • #4
epenguin
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I see interesting research in biophysics like quantitative analysis of cellular functions and dynamic modelling of systems. It looks like the better fit for me, but cell biology is dominated by biochemically focused research. So my question is: how relevant is physics really in the field of biology, aside from the development of tools and techniques to study biology?

That bit in the last sentence is an important part of it. Cell biologists are researching cellular biological problems using these techniques that they get from the physicists and chemists. They are quite smart and hardworking people but, how to say? a lot are using a limited bag of tricks for all they're worth and then if necessary picking up new tricks as they hear and read other people doing*. A bit different from the people who invent/develop the tricks and are more interested in how the tricks work.

I was a bit sceptical when I read your paras, but when I read the course, that seems to be a perfectly reasonable combination - it is a fairly broad course with basic molecular and cell biology and biochemistry. Most biologists and biochemists would then be doing more biological or biochemical courses and fewer math/physical ones, you would be doing the opposite emphasis. Neither can do everything and it is good that not everybody does the same thing, so not everybody thinks the same way.

The course gives scope for what you described as your interests. So if more interest, better motivated, more likely to do well, plus your computing background should help. Develop any special interest, even only one, to a special extent but recommend at no stage be narrow-minded and exclusive about anything else.

Proviso is I am judging it by brief reading titles of courses on paper - I do not know really how good this school really is, nor your School A. So we need to hear other people.

* Classic jibe 'Molecular biology is the practice of biochemistry (read also biophysics) without a licence'
 
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Thanks for your comments. That's what I'm thinking, it's good to have different perspectives. Though, what's stopping me from taking more physics courses when studying biochemistry? It seems like "biochemistry" and "biophysics", in the general area of interest I'm mainly concerned with, are just different points on the same spectrum instead of being fundamentally different things.

BTW "School A" is UBC (also Canadian). It's not exactly famous but it is bigger, better equipped, with more recognition than school B. Biophysics at this school is considered as an "honours" program which makes it ineligible for second degree studies.
 
  • #6
atyy
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I'm not sure real biophysicists will consider this biophyiscs, but Hodgkin and Huxley, as well as Neher and Sakmann did do "real" biology (I don't believe in the distinction, but just to answer your question). This guy also claims the subject is biophysics (which I can't judge), but I'm pretty sure it is "real" biology http://www.klab.caltech.edu/~koch/biophysics-book/ [Broken]. This site also categorized all sorts of interesting biology as "biological physics" http://physics.aps.org/browse?facets[subjectarea][]=biologicalphysics.
 
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Interesting stuff. I do look at the weekly APS updates and see some pretty interesting research in there. I suppose my question is twofold. One is that is physics really relevant in biology. It appears so, but I've also seen remarks that it is biology without biology. I guess it is a grey area and physics is still in the process of finding its place in biology (?). The other is whether I should choose biochemistry or biophysics, but I suppose that's more of a personal decision. Though does choosing one over the other on the undergraduate level really "fix" me on that path? These topics looks highly interdisciplinary anyway.
 
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BTW "School A" is UBC (also Canadian). It's not exactly famous but it is bigger, better equipped, with more recognition than school B.
Well, I'd say it's pretty renowned :smile:
Biophysics at this school is considered as an "honours" program which makes it ineligible for second degree studies.
I wouldn't rule it out just yet. I applied there for Physics, and, even though it first said that you can't enter the Honours program as a second degree student, I contacted the dean for student matters, and was told that basically if you do well and meet the criteria everyone else needs to meet, as well, you can enter the Honours program. If I'm not mistaken, you don't decide on that in your first year anyway, so all you need to do is have a good enough GPA and take the necessary courses. I'm not sure if this applies to Biophysics or whether the policy has changed from last year, but just to give you a heads up that if you're interested in attending UBC and this is the thing that's holding you back, just contact them and ask them in a way that you will receive a concrete and applicable answer.
 
  • #9
Andy Resnick
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It appears so, but I've also seen remarks that it is biology without biology.
Here's a specific example, which I present without judgment:

I came across a paper by Paul Janmey about how cells modulate their stiffness not unlike a phase transition and was totally blown away, so much so that I invited him to give a Department seminar (Physiology, School of Medicine).

I was completely engrossed. My colleagues, OTOH, saw *no* relevance to biology or disease. They saw no relevance because of their unfamiliarity with the role of mathematical modeling, and they had no context in which to place the results.

Now, over time (and I'd like to due think efforts of people like me), this situation is slowly changing- the "sophistication" of biomedical people (especially MDs) is increasing. However, it reamins the case that if I want to get NIH funding, or want to publish in physiology journals, etc., then I need to speak to the community on their terms- I need to explicitly make the case of disease relevance, of biological relevance, to perform hypothesis-driven research, and to translate the mathematical model into something real and physical.
 
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  • #10
Ygggdrasil
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The other is whether I should choose biochemistry or biophysics, but I suppose that's more of a personal decision. Though does choosing one over the other on the undergraduate level really "fix" me on that path? These topics looks highly interdisciplinary anyway.
My undergraduate degree was in biochemistry but I am now in a biophysics PhD program, so there is definitely significant overlap between the two fields. If you are interested in research at the molecular and cellular level, you could probably do similar types of research with a biochemistry or biophysics background. A degree in biophysics would probably provide you with a stronger quantitative background while a degree in biochemistry might give you a stronger grounding on the biology/chemistry side of things. Of course, depending on what electives you choose, you can play around with this balance no matter which path you choose.

Personally, I would not worry so much about the difference of whether your degree says biochemistry or biophysics. I would just choose the university where you think you could learn the most and be happy at.
 
  • #11
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Appreciate the replies everyone. I'm much less confused now. Thanks again!

Ryker: good to know that the honours option isn't completely out of the picture.
 
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