Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Teaching to bridge the gap between Physics and Biology

Posted by Athene Donald on September 3, 2010

Yesterday’s sessions at the Physics Meets Biology  meeting ended with discussion of what can be done to help teaching in biological physics.  The 2008 Wakeham Review highlighted that physics students in many departments get regrettably little exposure,if any, to modern soft matter physics and biophysics’.  On the back of this the IOP, led by Philip Diamond, has committed funds and energy towards trying to draw up some freely accessible material on the web on which departments can draw.  Previously, a group of us have had much discussion of the best way forward, and currently we are starting to write some brief modules which we hope will help to address the perceived need..  IOPP are also involved to make sure that the actual presentation of the material is as good and versatile as possible.  As well as making some contribution to this writing, I am also overall Project Director, and I look forward to seeing how it all comes together.


So to begin last night’s session, I gave a brief description of this project.  The key speaker was, however, Philip Nelson of the University of Pennsylvania, whose own book “Biological Physics: Energy, Information, Life” is a wonderful resource for anyone trying to develop material in the field.  He has thought very deeply about how to teach this topic both to physicists and, as he highlighted in the talk he gave at the meeting, to non-physics majors.  His specific approach may work less well in the UK setting, but it was eye-opening to see how he introduced a wide range of huge and exciting topics such as gene drift and vision to demonstrate the underlying physics and the physical mindset and toolset.

The problem with trying to tackle the perceived absence both of courses in many departments, and course material even for those departments where there is a will to include biological physics explicitly in the syllabus, is that each and every place will have a different set of existing courses and a different niche where they want to shoehorn the topic in. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and this makes it incredibly hard to be sure the Teaching Biological Physics Project will be effective. But I hope the web-based sourcing of material will enable lecturers to mix and  match what works for them (as long as the IOP manage to ‘market’ the material well enough to be sure people know it is out there). And I am even more keen that the existence of the material will enable people to appreciate how some biological illustrations can be drafted in to many mainstream courses.  I managed to get some stuff into the new 1st year Waves course I taught earlier this year, including Joe Howard’s wonderful movie of bull sperm moving, which is a much more interesting example of wave motion than merely the standard waves on strings. Some thought by lecturers with the motivation to introduce biological examples into core courses – and some help from our web based material – could go some way to rectifying the current gap that the Wakeham Review highlighted.

The discussion afterwards was illuminating. Where is the wow factor in teaching biology to physics? was one provocative question. Is the wow factor what gets all students interested in physics, so does this matter was one response, but of course this merely says not only is there not a one-size-fits-all solution for courses, it is equally true at the individual student level. Another concern expressed was that by teaching a little of everything do we end up with experts in none, who are not then equipped to deal with any topic in any depth.  This is of course the same point I made here, and is a hard nut to crack.  I suppose, within the context of this discussion, I feel the issue is more to expose physicists to the broader picture of where physics matters. For readers of this blog it is probably not a heretical idea to say there is more to physics than outer space and the LHC, as I fear much press coverage can tend to imply, and this is what I believe we need to address.

Finally, I was delighted to discover yesterday 2 undergraduate students here – as it happens from my own university, but that is possibly incidental – who had heard through the IOP about this meeting and had come to it off their own bat. Yes, we do teach biological physics in Cambridge and maybe that was relevant, but talking to them over dinner it was clear that both of them had always known they were interested in working at this interface and – because of the Natural Sciences Tripos system in my university which I believe is incredibly effective for students who have broad interests  – between them they had been able to do full year 1st year courses on Physiology of Organisms, Biology of Cells and, Evolution and Behaviour.  But not only was I struck by the initiative and motivation these two student had shown, it contrasted very markedly with the idea of undergraduate students as ‘potted plants‘ I had seen in a recent post on an American science professor’s blog.   The implication was professors, possibly those seeking tenure, used undergraduates to swell numbers whether or not they were going to get anything out of talks.  These students weren’t plants, they were an inspirational reminder of why we love what we do.

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