Biophysics Majors

drawing of a cross section of an E.coli cell
Cross-section of a small portion of an E. coli cell. Image credit: David Goodsell.

Because of multiple technological breakthroughs over the last decade that allow the gathering of large amounts of new kinds of data, biology has become a particularly exciting frontier of science, not only at a fundamental level but because of new opportunities to apply basic insights to medicine and health care. It turns out that physics has played an important role in developing many of the new technologies that have helped biology to advance, and it further turns out that many of the conceptual, experimental, and theoretical skills of physicists have turned out to be valuable for understanding biological problems.

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary subject that involves the frontiers of physics and biology (and also frontiers of chemistry, mathematics, computer science, and engineering). Biophysicists differ from biologists mainly in wanting to understand biology quantitatively: by carefully measuring experimental features of living systems (or tissues or molecules obtained from living systems), by developing technologies that allow novel problems to be studied, by formulating hypotheses in a concise mathematical form that can be falsified or supported by the quantitative details of the experiments, and by developing theories that can explain, clarify, and unify diverse biological data.

In collaboration with the Departments of Biology and Chemistry, the Physics Department offers a biophysics major for Duke students

  • who want to be prepared for 21st-Century biological research, medical research, and clinical medicine, which increasingly requires quantitative physics-like approaches.
  • who like using the quantitative methods of physics and mathematics to think about biology.
  • who want an interdisciplinary training in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics.
  • who want to invent devices that can measure new properties of biological or medical systems.
  • who want to study topics related to biomedical engineering but with the flexibility to take the broader range of courses offered by a liberal arts education (Trinity versus Pratt).

B.S. Degree vs. the B.A. Degree

The B.S. biophysics degree is a good choice for students who want to prepare for graduate research related to biology, biochemistry, bioengineering, biophysics, computational biology, medical physics, molecular biology, neurobiology, and physiology, while the B.A. biophysics degree might be more appropriate for students who want to go into biotechnology, consulting, industrial research, journalism, law, medicine, and science teaching. (But a student who wants to go to physics graduate school should major in physics.)

 If you would like to learn more about the biophysics major, please make an appointment to meet with the Physics Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies (ADUS), who is in charge of the Biophysics major. Please also feel free to introduce yourself to Duke faculty involved with biophysics and ask them about the research that they are doing and for a tour of their labs.