Coursework and Thesis Research

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With the diversity of incoming students it is important to ensure that we provide high quality education in the multiple areas of biophysics without overwhelming the students and, at the same time, that we ensure students are on track to completing their Ph.D. At present, the average time to graduation for Biophysics students is 5.6 years.

The Biophysics Graduate Program addresses this challenge by offering a curriculum that aims to accomplish two goals: (a) provide a common academic base; and (b) accommodate the different backgrounds of the students.  Consistent with our interest in broadening our student body, we have worked to increase the program's flexibility while enhancing the student's exposure to the core concepts in biophysics. All incoming students are required to take two subject placement exams (one in physics/physical chemistry, one in biological chemistry/cell biology) in order to measure their knowledge of each subject. The outcome of these exams will determine in which area additional coursework is required.

We require coursework in three areas: the physical sciences, the biological sciences, and biophysics. The physical science requirements are designed to give students at least an advanced undergraduate understanding of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. The biological sciences requirements ensure that the students are conversant in biochemistry, cell biology, and protein structure and function. All Biophysics students take the three core courses in biophysics: Biophysical Chemistry, Biophysical Techniques and Professional Development. Two additional electives are required of each student. Often these are chosen from other courses offered by the unit, including Dynamical Processes in Biophysics, X-ray Crystallography of Macromolecules, Biophysical Principles of Microscopy, and Multi-dimensional NMR spectroscopy. A typical student is required to take seven or eight courses, typically finishing their coursework sometime in their second year.

To custom-fit the curriculum to the specific needs of individual students, faculty advisors consult with students to design for each a list of courses that meet the guidelines and, at the same time, satisfy the specific goals of each individual. For example, cognate courses and electives are chosen to assure that each student attains competence in the broad areas of physics/physical chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, and cell and molecular biology. For students with a background in chemistry or physics, typically at least two cognates are chosen from the biochemistry/cell and molecular biology group and one from the molecular biophysics group. For students with degrees in the biological sciences, two cognates are selected from physics/chemistry and at least one from molecular biophysics or cell and molecular biology.

In order to familiarize incoming students with the different research topics and laboratory environments offered by the Biophysics Graduate Program, all first year students take part in term-long research rotations among the various Biophysics faculty. Students typically perform two research rotations in their chosen laboratories before selecting a research advisor. This rotation system accomplishes three goals:

  1. It helps students make more informed decisions about research focus and thesis advisors.
  2. It gives students a broader overview of different areas of biophysics and helps them establish contacts with various members of the program.
  3. It provides the students with a physical and psychological "home" during the initial orientation year.