What does a biophysicist do?

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What is a Biophysicist?

Biophysics, literally, is the physics of life. Biophysicists work at the intersection of physics, biology, and chemistry to research biological processes and cellular development. They study molecules, organisms, and ecosystems and use the evidence they uncover to confront problems in the life sciences and medicine. They examine activities such as movement, breathing, muscle contractions, and the operation of bones.

Together with clinicians, mathematicians, and engineers, they are at the cutting edge of research in areas like the immune system, cancer, and the development of new techniques in imaging, analysis, diagnosis, drug delivery, and even potential biofuels.

What has made life so complex? How does the nervous system work? How does the brain function? How do biological life forms adhere to the laws of physics? Biophysicists are the scientists, researchers, and teachers who seek to answer these and other big questions. They are, and aspire to be, solvers of mysteries.

What does a Biophysicist do?

A biophysicist working in the lab.

Biophysicists work to develop methods to overcome disease, eradicate global hunger, produce renewable energy sources, design cutting-edge technologies, and solve countless scientific mysteries. Their contributions to solving both age-old and emerging human problems span several sectors:

Data Analysis and Structure
The structure of DNA was solved in 1953 using biophysics, and the discovery was critical to showing how DNA is like a blueprint for life. Now it is possible to read the sequences of DNA from thousands of humans and all varieties of living organisms. Biophysical techniques are essential to the analysis of these vast quantities of data.

Computer Modeling
Biophysicists develop and use computer models to see and manipulate the shapes and structures of proteins, viruses, and other complex molecules. This crucial information is needed to develop new drug targets or to understand how proteins mutate and cause tumors to grow.

Molecules in Motion
Biophysicists study how hormones move around the cell, and how cells communicate with one another. Using fluorescent tags, they have been able to make cells grow like a firefly under a microscope and learn about the cell’s sophisticated internal transit system.

Biophysicists are building computer models called neural networks to model how the brain and nervous system work, leading to new understandings of how visual and auditory information is processed.

Bioengineering, Nanotechnologies, and Biomaterials
Biophysics has also been critical to understanding biomechanics – the science of movement of a living body, including how muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments work together to produce movement. Biophysicists apply this information to the design of better prosthetic limbs, and better nanomaterials for drug delivery.

Biophysicists have developed sophisticated diagnostic imaging technologies including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT) scans, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Biophysics continues to play a key role in the development of even safer, faster, and more precise technology to improve medical imaging and reveal more about the body’s inner workings.

Medical Applications
Biophysics has been fundamental to the development of many life-saving treatments and devices including kidney dialysis, radiation therapy, cardiac defibrillators, pacemakers, and artificial heart valves.

Environmental biophysics measures and models all aspects of the environment from the stratosphere to deep ocean vents. Environmental biophysicists research the diverse microbial communities that inhabit every niche of this planet, they track pollutants across the atmosphere, and are finding ways to turn algae into biofuels.

As these diverse applications of biophysics show, not all biophysicists do the same thing. There are, however some tasks and responsibilities that are common among most of them:

  • Execute and perform testing as per scientific method and lab protocols
  • Follow the project or company operating procedures and control programs
  • Work in tandem with other biophysicists and technicians
  • Prioritize daily work tasks to maintain efficient work flow
  • Assure completion of scheduled tasks; meet established due dates
  • Develop methods and tools to determine biological structures
  • Develop computer-based models for theoretical analysis
  • Develop predictive computer models
  • Conduct independent process development experiments to improve process or quality
  • Analyze and interpret lab results
  • Explore innovative solutions to problems using scientific creativity
  • Participate in decision-making processes within the project team by actively engaging in scientific and technical discussions
  • Build credibility within lab group by performing high quality work
  • Effectively communicate results of own work though scientific meetings, colleague and client presentations, discussions, and documentation
  • Report on and assist in failure investigations
  • Maintain / calibrate lab equipment
  • Maintain detailed records of projects
  • Create, update, and maintain databases
  • Maintain a clean and organized workbench space
  • Ensure any spills are immediately cleaned and materials are discarded and replaced according to lab procedures
  • Complete work orders and provide solutions for effective lab performance
  • Prepare test solutions and ensure that they are standardized across sets
  • Resolve routine technical problems
  • Review literature and the findings of other researchers
  • Secure funding and write grant applications

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What is the workplace of a Biophysicist like?

Over half of all biophysicists in the United States work in scientific or medical research and development. Because biophysics is an experiment-intensive discipline, their most common workplace is a laboratory, where they use a variety of lab equipment, machinery, and intricate technology. These labs may be located at government agencies, pharmaceutical firms, medicine manufacturers, universities, research institutes, hospitals, tech startups, and engineering companies.

Common government employers include the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). FDA biophysicists examine the impact of chemical compounds on living tissue and cells. Similarly, biophysicists employed by the EPA consider environmental impacts.

As research projects are often interdisciplinary, biophysicists generally collaborate with experts in a number of fields including physics, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, statistics, data science, and engineering.

Those who work with dangerous organisms or toxic substances must follow safety procedures to avoid contamination. This may involve wearing lab coats, goggles, and gloves. Most biophysicists work a traditional 40-hour work week, but may have to put in additional hours to meet project deadlines or to perform time-sensitive lab experiments. Travel may be required to attend conferences, seminars, and presentations.

Biophysicists are also known as:
Biological Physicist