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Optics: Physics vs. Engineering

  1. Apr 20, 2012 #1
    I am curious about the differences between optics in the fields of (Bio)engineering and physics. Mainly, I'm interested in finding out how the research differs between the two fields and which would be the best for an undergraduate who is interested in graduate school. From what I understand, there can be quite a bit of overlap, but which would prepare me better for graduate school in say biomedical optics?

    I am assuming that a BS in bioengineering would better prepare me for more applied research that involves development of new biomedical instruments and imaging/optics techniques. Whereas physics would give me a better knowledge base of the theory behind optics as apposed to the instrumentation and research would be more concerned with how molecules/materials interact with light, etc. Can someone correct me and/or add to this?

    I am only a freshman (in bioengineering) but at this point I am more interested in possibly pursuing research more on the "physics side of things". Will a bioengineering BS with a minor in math and physics prepare me for graduate study in a physics program in optics or at least an engineering program that is more physics based in their research? Would a physics BS allow me to pursue graduate school in bioengineering or vise versa? I would like to be as flexible as possible after undergrad.

    Appreciate your help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 20, 2012 #2
    I have similar interests to yours and I've had experience in research labs (Princeton and a research institute in the Czech Republic) where they used optics to study biological phenomena. It is an awesome field and being in the lab working on it is even cooler!

    First of all, when it comes to research you'll find a lot of applied physicists in bioengineering labs working as "engineers". Majoring in engineering at university, you'll learn a lot about economics and mass producing etc...

    I'm still an undergrad, but from my experience in these labs has allowed me to see the huge difference you're talking about between the physicists and engineers (or applied physicists).

    The physicists and physical chemists were more on the theoretical side of things, they predicted what was going to happen and left it up to the engineers (applied physicists) to manipulate the equipment (build a laser, monitor its strength, etc.). The physicists used computer simulations and mathematical models to build an experiment and develop a hypothesis (ex. this molecule will emit this much light etc. etc.) while the engineers (applied physicists) just aided in carrying out the actual experiment by adjusting perimeters and physically setting things up.

    Both engineers and physicists are crucial in a lab, you just need to decide if you're more of a theorists or more of an experimentalist.

    That's just my observations from two summers of research in optics labs, I'm sure someone in graduate school could give you more info
  4. Apr 20, 2012 #3
    Very interesting, I appreciate your response. Are you majoring in engineering or physics?

    The fact that you used applied physics and engineering interchangeably makes me believe that an undergrad physics degree will allow me to end up on either side of the spectrum while engineering may limit me to one side (the instrumentation). Is this an accurate assumption?
  5. Apr 20, 2012 #4
    I'm actually majoring in applied mathematics and chemistry (with a concentration in physical chemistry). A large part of physical chemistry research is studying the interaction of light with molecules (photochemistry) and optics, which is what I'm interested in.

    That sounds like an accurate assumption if you were to work in a lab right after college, but if you went to grad school for optics you would simply take the classes that you're missing. For example, an engineer would take the physics classes he missed out on and a physicist would take the engineering classes he missed out on. I believe that taking physics classes as an undergrad will help you understand the "concepts" of optics though.

    I'm sure bioengineering prepares you pretty good too, and it would probably be helpful to take some physics classes if you have time. I'd try to get involved in research with some of your professors if you can over the summer (preferably in an optics lab) and take physics classes at the same time. You might even be able to double major...

    Anyways, back to your question - you will not be limited to doing what physicists do as a bioengineering major, because you will take the courses you missed out on in grad school.

    EDIT: Also, the engineers I witnessed in the labs actually ENJOYED the instrumentation. They loved building lasers and other instruments. The physicists who were more on the theoretical side could probably build a laser if they wanted to, but the engineers had a more mechanical understanding of how the instruments worked and I'd trust them more with how to put it together. It's just two different team players working toward a common goal.
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