What is a Biophysics Degree?

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, diagnosis, and analysis. Degree programs in biophysics prepare students to become players in this frontier of modern science with a vast potential for breakthroughs.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Biophysics – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, biophysics students learn the techniques of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, and then apply them to questions of biology and medicine. Many programs integrate a directed research component. Here is a sample curriculum:

  • Analytical Mechanics with Laboratory – an introduction to Newtonian mechanics
  • Introduction to Relativity, Waves, and Quantum Physics with Laboratory – an introduction to special relativity and quantum mechanics
  • Electricity and Magnetism with Laboratory – electric and magnetic fields, motion of charged particles on fields, electric and magnetic properties of matter, direct and alternating currents, and Maxwell’s equations
  • Equilibrium, Rate, and Structure with Laboratory – the electronic structure of atoms and molecules, thermodynamics, solution equilibrium, electrochemistry, chemical kinetics, and reaction mechanisms
  • Organic Chemistry with Laboratory – the constitution and properties of the different classes of organic compounds
  • Biological Physics – the structures of proteins, nucleotides, and membranes; electrostatics and hydration; chemical equilibrium, binding affinity and kinetics; hydrodynamics and transport; cellular mechanics and motions; biophysical techniques including sedimentation, electrophoresis, microscopy, and spectroscopy
  • Introductory Calculus – integration, techniques of integration, and applications; infinite series, power series, Taylor’s formula, polar and parametric equations; introduction to differential equations
  • The Foundation of Living Organisms – overview of biological systems, the patterns and process which form the basis of life
  • Cell and Molecular Biology – the structure and function of the basic unit of an organism, the cell; cellular functions and their relevance to health and disease
  • Principles of Physiology – introduction to the function and integration of human organ systems and cell and organ system physiology
  • Physiological Pharmacology – the physiology of human disease (heart failure, cancer, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease); the pharmacology of the drugs used to treat disease
  • Polymer Science for Biomaterials with Laboratory – the principles of polymer science and its application in medicine
  • Tissue Engineering – replacing or regenerating compromised tissue function, tissue design and development, functional reconstruction of injured tissues
  • Biochemistry – the mechanisms involved in the principles of macromolecular structure and function, the pathways for metabolism, the transfer of information from genes to proteins
  • Genetics with Laboratory – transmission of genes and chromosomes, mutation, expression of genetic material, genetic engineering, and evolutionary genetics
  • Experiments in Modern Physics – introduction to experimental physics; students perform basic experiments in modern quantum physics; lab techniques, statistics, and data analytics
  • Quantum Mechanics – an integrated study of photons, electrons, atoms, molecules, matter, nuclei, and particles
  • Linear Algebra – vector spaces, linear transformations, matrices, systems of linear equations, bases, projections, rotations, determinants, and inner products
  • Methods of Applied Mathematics – mathematical techniques involving ordinary differential equations used in the analysis of physical, biological, and economic phenomena
  • Chemical Biology – the use of chemical tools to probe biological systems, molecular recognition of DNA, artificial enzymes, small molecule sensors, and imaging of proteins nucleic acids, and cell-surface carbohydrates

Master’s Degree in Biophysics – Two Year Duration
The biophysics master’s program provides a foundation for those wishing to pursue a career in research, teaching, or applied biomedical fields. The typical curriculum combines core courses, laboratory techniques, and thesis or culminating project research. This is the most common credential held by biophysicists.

Here is a sample set of courses offered at this level:

  • Cellular and Molecular Biophysics
  • Quantitative Biology and Systems Biophysics
  • Biophysical Techniques
  • Cell Biology
  • Structure and Function in Genes and Proteins
  • Regulation of Metabolism
  • Biomaterials
  • Medical Biophysics
  • Neural Engineering
  • Quantitative Analysis in Biomedical Imaging
  • Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
  • Cardiovascular Biomechanics
  • Physics of Medical Imaging
  • Image Form and Processing
  • Introduction to Statistical Inference
  • Advanced Statistical Computing

Doctoral Degree in Biophysics – Five Year Duration
The doctoral program in biophysics is like a very long dissertation project. Ph.D. students have a great deal of independence. They have the benefit of supervision from a faculty advisor and may complete some taught classes, but their focus is on their independent research, on contributing original – new – knowledge to the field of biophysics. The Doctoral Degree in Biophysics is targeted at students who aspire to careers as university professors, researchers, or biomedical industry executives.

The courses taken by individual Ph.D. candidates will vary, depending on the focus of their dissertation. Here are some examples of possible core courses and research areas:

Core Courses

  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Chemical Thermodynamics
  • Biophysical Chemistry
  • Membrane Biophysics
  • Cell Biology

Research Areas

  • Cell and molecular biophysics – cancer biology, biological reasons for cancer
  • Medical physics – the physics of medical imaging systems, how electromagnetic waves and particles work, practical applications
  • Structural biology – determining the structure of molecules by various methods such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, x-ray crystallography, and electron microscopy
  • Membranes and channels
  • Theory of molecular machines and motors (natural or synthetic molecules that convert chemical energy into mechanical forces and motion)
  • Cell mechanics – the mechanical forces generated by cells
  • Motility and cytoskeleton – the cytoskeleton is a systems of fibers critical to cell motility, the spontaneous movement of a cell from one location to another by consumption of energy
  • Single molecule biophysics – the study of the dynamics and interactions of individual biomolecules to understand how they carry out their functions in living cells

Degrees Similar to Biophysics

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Engineering Physics
Students of engineering physics learn how to use physics to solve practical problems. For this reason, the field is sometimes referred to as the bridge between physics and engineering. Coursework includes computational physics, materials science, thermodynamics, and nanotechnology.

Molecular Biology
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.

Neuroscientists study the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system and how they affect behavior. The field of neuroscience borrows principles from biology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, immunology, physics, mathematics, and computer science. Degree programs in neuroscience, therefore, reflect this multidisciplinary nature.

At the graduate level, programs include the study of neurological disorders, the impact that injury has on the brain, and approaches to neurological therapy and rehabilitation.

Physics is a field that keeps changing as discoveries are made. This means that the field asks at least as many questions as it answers. Students of physics degree programs study matter and energy. They learn about the relationships between the measurable quantities in the universe, which include velocity, electric field, and kinetic energy. In simple terms, the study of physics is an attempt to figure out why objects move in the way that they do.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Abstract reasoning
  • Academic writing and presentation / report writing
  • Attention to detail
  • Awareness of ethical issues
  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • Computer literacy / information technology
  • Debate skills
  • Decision-making
  • Experiment design
  • Explaining complex concepts and ideas
  • Laboratory skills
  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Observation, investigation, and critical thinking
  • Organization and time management
  • Problem-solving
  • Research and data analysis and interpretation
  • Summarizing vast amounts of information
  • Understanding of the relationship between science and society
  • Use of statistical tests in data analysis

What Can You Do with a Biophysics Degree?

Biophysics graduates go on to work in a variety of areas including:

  • Academic and clinical research
  • Bioinformatics – use of computer programs for a variety of applications, including determining gene and protein functions, establishing evolutionary relationships, and predicting the three-dimensional shapes of proteins
  • Biomedical engineering / medical instrumentation and devices
  • Government agencies – examples: National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • Military
  • Pharmaceutical industry
  • Scientific instrumentation – sales and marketing, engineering, manufacturing, documentation, etc.
  • Scientific writing and journalism
  • Teaching


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