Program in Biophysics

Academic Unit

Program Information

The Program in Biophysics is designed for students who are interested in bringing the intellectual traditions of physics to bear on the phenomena of life. In practice, this means taking courses that reach across the huge gulf between disciplines, and exploring the interface through junior and senior independent work. At Princeton, "biophysics" means much more than the application of methods from physics to the problems of biology; students are encouraged to appreciate that physicists and biologists ask different questions, and expect different kinds of answers. Current examples of this style of work range from the dynamics of single molecules to the networks of neurons responsible for perception and memory, from collective behavior in groups of organisms to the mechanics of single cells, and from information flow in genetic regulatory networks to evolution. As in all areas of physics, research in biophysics involves both theory and experiment.

Recent certificate students have concentrated in physics, some in molecular biology, and some in other departments. Students are encouraged to speak with the program director to find a program of study that builds on existing requirements in their home department.

Admission to the Program

Students are admitted to the program once they have chosen their field of concentration and consulted with the program director, who will assign them an adviser. Normally, they will have completed the freshman and sophomore prerequisites for their concentration.

Program of Study

Biophysics students develop a program in consultation with their adviser that consists of a core curriculum plus the necessary prerequisites, junior and senior independent work in biophysics, and electives. Because a sound training in mathematics is a prerequisite for successful performance in upperclass physics courses, at least one 300-level course in differential equations should be taken as early as possible.

Physics concentrators who enter the department via the traditional route (PHY 105/6 or 103/4 as freshmen) are encouraged to take MOL 214 or (preferably) 215 as early as possible, to have a clearer idea of the opportunities at the interface between physics and biology. To broaden their background, students must also take one 300- or 400-level course in the biological sciences. Most certificate students have also taken PHY 412 (Biological Physics) or the graduate course PHY 562 (Biophysics). Finally, students are encouraged to gain direct laboratory experience with biological systems, either by arranging to split their junior laboratory experience between PHY 312 and MOL 350 (by arrangement with the physics departmental representative), or by working in a biophysics laboratory on campus over the summers. For physics concentrators who enter the department via the Integrated Science curriculum (ISC 231-4 as freshmen), the sophomore course ISC 235/6 can serve as an introduction to the biological sciences. These students should use PHY 412 and/or 562 as electives to deepen their understanding of current work in the field.

Molecular biology concentrators who enter the department through the Integrated Science curriculum are encouraged to continue their physics education through PHY 203 or 205, and PHY 208, but most importantly through PHY 301 (Thermal Physics). This should provide the preparation required for PHY 412, and for serious independent work with physics content. Molecular biology concentrators who enter the department through the more traditional path are encouraged to take their introductory physics courses (PHY 103/4, or, preferably, 105/6) as early as possible, and to plan a curriculum that brings them to 300-level mathematics courses in the start of their junior year. These students should continue their physics education as described above.

Recognizing that biophysics is an interdisciplinary program whose excitement lies in the fluidity of the intellectual landscape, alternative programs of study may be arranged at the discretion of the program committee. Junior independent work in the physics department can be on two different topics in biophysics, or one in physics, the other in biophysics. Independent work for molecular biology concentrators should display a clear connection to the ideas, as well as the methods, of physics. Independent research topics are approved in advance by the program committee, in consultation with faculty advisers.

To qualify for the biophysics program certificate, a minimum B average must be attained in the program courses, and a B average in the independent work. Program courses may not be taken pass/D/fail.

Certificate of Proficiency

Students who fulfill all requirements of the program will receive a certificate of proficiency in biophysics upon graduation.

Program-related Courses. There are a variety of electives available to suitably prepared program members:

Applied and Computational Mathematics
514 Biological Dynamics (also EEB 514/MOL 514)

542 Principles of Macromolecular Structure
543 Advanced Topics in Structural Biology
306 Physical Chemistry: Chemical Thermodynamics and Kinetics
Certain 500-level courses, with the instructor's permission

ELE 352 Physical Optics

Molecular Biology
400-level and certain 500-level courses, with the instructor's permission

412 Biological Physics
562 Biophysics, with the instructor's permission