Happy Halloween! We’ve had enough horror lately. So, to commemorate the holiday, I’d like to share a not-so-scary story, the story of the often-feared field of biophysics.
I am enrolled in a graduate school with an umbrella program in biomedical science. My program has seven varying concentrations. I work alongside all sorts of scientists: chemists, geneticists, immunologists, microbiologists, even skeletal biologists. During seminars and poster presentations, it’s typical to overhear a non-biophysicist remark that biophysics is “overly complicated,” “over my head,” or “above my pay grade.”
What is biophysics?
Biophysics uses physical theories to explain, describe, and observe biological events. Biophysicists investigate the structure of biomolecules, the thermodynamics of biological reactions, enzyme kinetics, protein movement, and more! Ever used or heard of FRET, NMR, x-ray crystallography, cryo-EM, small-angle scattering, or isothermal titration calorimetry? Those are all biophysical techniques.
Note that biophysics, like all areas of science, overlaps considerably with other areas of expertise. So, if you’re a biologist, chemist, neuroscientist, or biochemist, you’ve likely been exposed to some level of biophysics.
What’s all the fuss?
Ok, let’s clear the air. Why are people afraid of biophysics?
1) Math. When I joined the biophysics department at my school, I was often told, “Well, I hope you’re good at math.” I’m ok at math, but most calculations I do are your typical molarity calculations. True, some biophysicists use a lot of math in their research, particularly those who work with method development, but many of us do a basic level of math expected of any scientist.
2) MIA undergrad biophysics courses. Biophysics courses aren’t required or offered for many science degrees. But just because you didn’t learn about biophysics in a classroom doesn’t mean the knowledge is unattainable now. In fact, I wasn’t introduced to biophysics until after undergrad.
3) Jargon. Plenty of biophysicists love jargon!! They have a fancy vocabulary and enjoy showing it off. So, if you attend a biophysics seminar, the speaker might scare you away with their esoteric knowledge. Don’t let them! Biophysics can be accessible if communicated in a clear, concise way.
4) Theory. As part of their training, biophysicists are expected to learn the techniques they use as well as the theory and equations behind them. If you don’t understand the theory or equations, don’t fret (pun intended)! You can benefit from biophysics if you understand why an experiment was conducted and what conclusions were made without acquiring a deep understanding of underlying theory.
Crossing over: Learning biophysics as a non-biophysicist.
The next time you come across a biophysics figure in a paper or have the opportunity to use a biophysical technique, don’t shy away.
1) Ask for help from your biophysical friends. When doing so, tell them when they are using big words and phrases you don’t understand. Likely, the jargon they are using isn’t necessary but comes second nature to them.
2) YouTube. YouTube is an excellent source for explaining biophysical techniques. Pro tip: click around until you come across a biophysicist who speaks at your level. Some videos are super theory-oriented, while others are made for practicality and accessibility.
3) Take your time. Learning about biophysical techniques is more time-consuming than learning how a western blot or a qPCR works. Begin by learning the basics of an experiment: what is done and what can be learned. Then, your knowledge can grow from there.
A message to my fellow biophysicists:
It’s cool to show off our impressive data sets, brag about our niche knowledge, and geek out over new techniques. But remember to be mindful of your audience. Yes, when we speak to each other, we have our own language. But when we speak to researchers out of our niche, we can explain our work in simple, understandable terms. Improving our communication can help our fellow researchers explore biophysics while bolstering the importance of biophysical funding and education in academia.