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Preparation for graduate biophysics

  1. Sep 6, 2005 #1
    I'm a molecular biology major who plans to pursue an advanced degree in molecular biophysics. I've done myself the favor of taking preparatory elective math courses (calculus II and III, linear algebra, differential equations) and calculus-based introductory mechanics and elec/mag; however, I have no room for additional, formal coursework in physics. I'd hate to fall behind in grad school, so I'm considering buying a few physics text books and learning the material on my own. Everything I've read indicates that I may need more exposure to classical mechanics, elec/mag, thermal physics, quantum mechanics and physical chemistry. I want to be prepared for the topics on magnetic resonance and so forth. What I'm not sure about is where to focus my study. I don't have time to attempt to replicate an entire undergraduate physics curriculum (nor do I feel up to the task), but I'd like to at least start moving in the right direction. I don't really care about proofs, derivations and all that as I'm not interested in furthering the physics itself--I simply want to apply what's there to problems in biology. So, what topics do you guys feel are the most important? And in what order should I study them. For example, how far should I go with mechanics or elec/mag before studying atomic physics or quantum mechanics, etc. My goal is to study protein folding, interactions in the cellular environment, etc.

    I hope this makes sense...I'm really not all that familiar with the territory. Thanks for any help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 6, 2005 #2
    Right now, I have one question for you:

    Did you take physical chemistry as an undergraduate?

    If so, did you have a full sequence or did you have a truncated course that was specially designed for biological science majors? If the former, you are probably going to be fine. If the latter, you may have a bit more work cut out for you. A proper sequence in physical chemistry will have covered enough thermodynamics/elementary statistical mechanics and introductory quantum mechanics (and kinetics) to keep you from drowning. If you didn't have p.chem. at the very least, you may want to check with the programs you're interested in applying to - it seems a lot of molecular biophysics graduate programs expect some sort of p.chem. background or equivalent physics coursework, at least from when I applied to graduate school a few years back. This may just be to serve as a warning and not a sign that they would automatically reject you, but I just wanted to bring it up. If you still have the chance to take p.chem. but haven't - do it.

    For fields like protein folding, it's an awfully broad field. There are people doing everything from very theoretical approaches which involve lots and lots of statistical physics to very high-level experimental methods involving multidimensional optical spectroscopy and/or NMR spectroscopy to very elegant and comprehensive thermodynamic studies of protein folding and unfolding. How much background you need (obviously, the wider and deeper the background the better, but right now I'm thinking in terms of not getting totally overwhelmed in grad school) will depend on what you're doing. For things like magnetic resonance, you see the same sort of thing. I'm in the NMR field and you can either go very deep or very shallow or anywhere in between, it all depends on what you want to do and accomplish.

    My very general suggestion would be to sort of motivate yourself with p.chem. and then work your way through classical mechanics, EM, and then quantum mechanics (thermal physics could fit in here at a couple of places, even going so far as to be divided up at the appropriate points). This way, at the very least you have some sort of reasonable background and can then build upon it.

    My last bit of advice is that if you are planning on doing a Ph.D. in biophysics that happens to be offered through a physics department (e.g., you will need to be accepted to a physics department first and not to an interdisciplinary program or biochem/biophysics department or bio sci department), I will defer to the actual physicists on the forum in terms of admissions advice and counseling. I am a weird little physical chemist/biophysics type who is in a chemistry department - one of my options was to go into a physics department for biophysics, but I had a more typical background coming out of undergrad.
  4. Sep 7, 2005 #3
    I will (hopefully) have taken both semesters of physical chemistry by the time I graduate. I'll follow your suggestion and start on the other physics after p.chem. Thank you for your reply...its content--especially the bits about depth and breadth--was exactly what I was looking for.
  5. Sep 7, 2005 #4
    I feel compelled to add one other thing.

    Speaking as someone who mainly does experimental work, some of the most useful physics background was actually the lab experience, both the required lab courses and my own external research experience (dealing with electronics, small mechanical bits and pieces, struggling with the instrument console and computer programs, etc.). The fact that I had dealt with those sorts of things as an undergrad made joining my new lab far less intimidating, I think.

    Most biophysics programs are very competitive and I think almost expect a person to have research experience of some sort. If you can get experience in a research lab, I can't recommend it enough, especially if it's in a biophysical area of research. Sure, you may not have taken all the physics or p.chem. classes that are offered by your university when all is said and done, but if you can point to lab experience, it can really help you out. After all, the Ph.D. is a research degree, not a coursework degree.

    ETA: The other thing I wanted to mention is that by its very nature, you are likely going to have deficiencies coming into an interdisciplinary program. Sure, someone could have majored in math, physics, chemistry, and biology as an undergrad, but it's a rarity. Most programs tend to have both their own courses available as well as a list of appropriate courses outside the department or program to either help you catch up or move you ahead.
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2005
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