A Work in Progress

No science discipline now can (or should) be seen as a silo, content to keep its boundaries closed against marauders from elsewhere. This is just as true of physics as any of the other sciences. For me, working at the interface with biology is a particularly exciting area to be active in, because there are so many big questions which physicists may be able to contribute to, but to which their skills and tools have as yet rarely been applied. It is flourishing as a discipline around the world, but suffering a little in the UK for a variety of structural reasons. In part this is because of interface issues between the research councils, with many potentially rewarding projects falling down the cracks between their different remits, flavours and criteria, despite apparent goodwill on the part of the research councils. To resolve this problem is definitely work in progress, involving ongoing if often frustrating discussions for many of us.

However, another problem the UK faces is in its undergraduate teaching. Physics at the interface with biology is an area that intrigues many of our ablest students, not least because they hear so much about developments in biology in the press in this post-genomic era. However, many university departments are not equipped to deal with teaching anything within this area, due to having no faculty with requisite experience. The number of staff declared to be working in Biophysics/Biological Physics has crept up from a measly 1.9% in 2004 to a marginally more respectable 2.7% in 2008, according to the most recent IOP Survey of Academic Appointments in Physics, but these numbers still mean that many departments have not a single member of staff who is likely to be comfortable with teaching this sort of material. To help to resolve this problem, the IOP has set up and funded a project to produce web-based teaching material that can be used freely by university departments. This also remains a work in progress, but the project was formally launched today, with the material so far completed available through the front page here (my own minor contribution to the pages is one of those not yet visible, although it is in large part completed; there are substantially more pages yet to appear, so watch that space).

What follows provides an expanded view about the motivation, coverage and potential uses of the material that is already or soon will be available on the Biologicalphysics webpages on the IOP, being my introduction (as Project Director) to the whole project. I hope many of you will feel sufficiently interested to explore these pages in more detail.

In the current climate science and science research is becoming increasingly inter- and multi-disciplinary. A rigorous training in one discipline, such as physics, should not preclude an awareness of other subjects. In particular, physics at the interface with biology (‘Biological Physics’) is not only a growing area of importance in its own right, it also satisfies the interest many students have in the burgeoning new biology of this post-genomic era. The Institute of Physics, recognizing these factors, has sponsored the production of teaching materials in Biological Physics for departments and individual lecturers to incorporate into their own courses as they see fit, particularly when they currently have no staff members expert or even familiar with some of the topics themselves. The material is provided in modular form, incorporating both explanatory text and detailed Powerpoint slides, as well as book recommendations for further reading. It can be used in different ways – for instance simply in the form provided to give stand-alone modules, or to provide information on specific examples (or inspiration for further examples) which may be incorporated into existing courses, for instance on thermodynamics or condensed matter.

The material for this course has been written by a group of experts specifically for the purpose of facilitating teaching in mainstream undergraduate physics courses, with the content devised and overseen by a project board. The material currently available will be augmented over the months ahead to cover a broad swathe of what might be termed ‘biological physics’, ultimately including:

• Thermodynamics, as relevant to biology including membranes, aggregation and Brownian motion;
• Classes of biological molecules, their structures and functions;
• Basic architecture of the cell, including the cytoskeleton;
• Tissues and organisms;
• Classical physiology;
• Biological energy;
• Molecular machines;
• Regulatory networks;
• Biomechanics;
• Biodiversity.

Not all of these modules are currently on line. The choice of topics is intended to be broad and illustrative of the key ideas which would be appropriate to introduce at an undergraduate level for physicists. But it is not exhaustive and one thing the project board is clear about is that there are many different ways, utilising a variety of themes and topics, to expose undergraduates to this important area depending on existing course structures within any given institution. However, as the recent EPSRC International Review of Physics made clear, Biological Physics needs to be given more prominence in the undergraduate curriculum than it currently is in many UK universities.

As Project Director, I commend this valuable material to you. I hope all institutions will review the material available, both now and in the months ahead, and evaluate how best to incorporate the topics into their teaching programmes.

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One Response to A Work in Progress

  1. An excellent resource indeed. Thanks to everyone involved for what has no doubt been an enormous amount of work.

    This site has great potential – not just for undergrad teaching but also for postgrads (in the UK in particular; I can see this being a really useful element of courses already running in Bristol). Actually, in all honesty, I’ll be going through this content for my own benefit!

    I can also see a natural development of a site like this being inclusion of http://www.ibioseminars.org/ -style lectures delivering and extending the content.

    It will be interesting to see how this overlaps (if at all) with the recently announced BBSRC initiatives in the Systems Biology area: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/news/people-skills-training/2011/110511-n-new-grant-quantitative-biology.aspx (New grant to train researchers in quantitative biology). That doesn’t launch until 2013 so in the meantime I shall be immersing myself in Biological Physics.