Talking Biology in the Language of Physics

Talking Biology in the Language of Physics

By Kenrick Vezina

“Much of biology is now quantitative,” says Rob Phillips. Unfortunately, biology education often is not.

That’s why Phillips, a biophysics professor at Caltech, launched the Physical Biology of the Cell (PBC) course at MBL last summer. A big hit, it will be back this August (application deadline is April 17!)

The buzz about Physical Biology of the Cell reached “The Big Bang Theory” TV show, which asked permission to use the course’s 2016 poster as “set dressing” in future episodes. Keep an eye out for it!

Phillips and course co-director Hernan Garcia of the University of California-Berkeley offer the students – all biologists – an immersion in the tools of physics, mathematics, and biological theory. For some, this will be the first time they’ve used higher-level math since freshman-year calculus.

“It’s not like the students don’t know math,” says Garcia. “They’re just rusty.” Classical biology education doesn’t demand much in terms of quantitative thinking, but mathematical tools ­­– long associated with physics – are no less useful when applied to living things.

All numbers can be fundamentally estimated in terms of “one, few, or powers of ten,” offers Phillips as an example. This is something physicists have known for decades. Indeed, physicist Enrico Fermi is famous precisely for these sorts of dramatic, powerful estimations – so much so that they’re now named Fermi problems in his honor.

The PBC course takes students through abstract Fermi problems, such as estimating the number of Porta Potties needed for a massive public event. Meanwhile, they also take on a variety of concrete tasks: measuring gene expression in bacteria, measuring fruit flies’ embryonic development, even building a microscope from scratch.

By the end of the course, students develop their own research projects in biological theory. Last year’s students delved into deep questions such as how bacterial cells are able to move at the molecular level, or what guides the arrangement of nuclei inside the cells of developing embryos.

“The hope is that the course will transform students’ careers,” says Garcia. It’s an offshoot of the famed MBL Physiology course, which Phillips also co-directs. In that course, Phillips introduced a theory-based option to the normal experimental project rotation and found that it was tremendously popular.

As far as transforming careers, the course seems to be a smashing success. As Suzannah Beeler, a Caltech graduate student who took the course last year, puts it: “I left the course no longer feeling that physics is something only physicists can do.”

Top photo: Microbiologist and PBC faculty member Julie Theriot of HHMI/Stanford University in MBL’s Loeb Laboratory last summer. Credit: Megan Costello