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Commentary: Revamping graduate biophysics education

23 June 2021

Graduate programs should address the needs of students in a growing interdisciplinary field.

Biophysics is a growing and changing field. In 2017–18, nearly 8% of physics PhDs were awarded for biophysics, compared with just over 6% in 2010–11. And in 2020 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine debuted a decadal survey specifically focused on biological physics, effectively acknowledging it as a stand-alone subfield.

However, in our experience, formal education in biophysics has not evolved as quickly as research in the field, and it lacks a set of best practices. In particular, the structure of traditional physics programs can be too rigid for students in the interdisciplinary field.

Photos courtesy of Micah Brush (left), Jonathan Liu (center), and QinQin Yu (right)

As graduate students studying biophysics in the physics department at the University of California, Berkeley, we have at times felt the impact of such rigidity. But we have also had the opportunity to participate in endeavors aimed at improving structural aspects of our program. Our viewpoints provide a contemporary perspective on the biophysics graduate student experience. Below, we present a set of suggestions for improving graduate biophysics education in physics departments, many of which are drawn from aspects of existing initiatives.

Direction and guidance

Many students enter their PhD programs without a clear picture of what research they want to do. Their interests may also change after they begin doing research. We believe it’s important to expose as many graduate students as possible to biophysics research and to actively recruit them to research groups.

Short projects with a handful of research groups in a student’s first year, often called rotations, are a useful tool for working toward that goal, and we encourage departments to formalize the rotation process for students who want to take advantage of it. All of us rotated between various subfields, from experimental atomic physics to high-energy theory, before eventually finding our research advisers in biophysics.

Programs with first-year seminars about research opportunities in the department should include biophysics faculty. Such formal structures help expose students to research in an equitable way. When such exposure is relegated to unofficial communications between students and faculty, students with less access to those informal channels can struggle to learn about and secure high-quality mentorship and research opportunities.

Additionally, because research talks are one of the main ways to expose students to new research topics, physics department colloquia should regularly include invited biophysics speakers. That may be accomplished by, for example, including a biophysics faculty member on the colloquium committee. And given that biophysics is so interdisciplinary, physics faculty should alert students to relevant talks in other departments.

An institution with enough resources could even create a dedicated biophysics seminar spanning multiple departments, similar to the MIT Biophysics Seminar series. In addition to exposing students to topics at the cutting edge of biophysics research, such cross-department mingling would help students grow their professional networks and foster informal conversations between students and faculty from different disciplines. Those connections can lead to research collaborations or mentoring relationships.

Course work and committees

Many physics departments require graduate course work that can take up to two and a half years to complete. The course load often consists largely of in-department classes. But in biophysics, options from other departments may be more relevant for a student’s research—especially if the physics department has few biophysics course offerings. That student would benefit from flexibility and support in choosing course work.

Because the faculty expertise at a given institution often determines the in-department offerings, we can’t recommend a universal list of courses that all biophysics students should take. Instead, we encourage faculty to compile a list of relevant core classes for their own institution. In addition to physics courses, the list could include choices from such departments as biology, chemistry, neuroscience, statistics, computer science, and engineering. An academic adviser can then use that core list to help a student create a course work plan that complements the student’s background.

Credit: Lerok2000, CC BY-SA 4.0

Once a graduate student has formed a dissertation committee, the members of that committee should be providing feedback on the student’s progress. Most departments require that a dissertation committee consist primarily of members from the student’s home department. In our experience, that constraint leads to committees that are built to satisfy logistical requirements rather than to match research interests. A student who is researching experimental microbial evolution would benefit from having committee members in physics, microbiology, and statistics; requiring that a committee consist mostly of physics members may limit its ability to provide the student with substantive support and limit the breadth of feedback that the student receives.

To solve that problem, departments could reduce the number of committee members that are required to come from a student’s home department or allow additional extra-departmental committee members. For example, the graduate division at UC Berkeley recently relaxed requirements on committee composition such that only the chair of the committee must be a member of the student’s home department. The relaxed requirements allow committees to better serve their advisory function.

Evolving needs

A recent study by the American Institute of Physics (publisher of Physics Today) found that just over half of all PhD graduates in physics start their post-PhD career track outside academia (see the article by Patrick Mulvey, Physics Today, October 2020, page 40). Now more than ever, it is clear that most PhD candidates will not end up as tenured faculty.

We strongly believe that physics departments have a responsibility to educate graduate students about the numerous opportunities that lie beyond academia. That information is particularly relevant for biophysics students because they are well poised to transition into a career in industry; potential subfields with connections to biophysics and biotechnology include data science, pharmaceuticals, medical physics, biotech, genomics, and health care. Informing students about and connecting them with such opportunities could also help attract and retain diverse students, many of whom may be interested in pursuing a more applied career.

However, many universities and physics departments lack comprehensive resources and infrastructure to help their students make that transition. A 2017 report by the Council of Graduate Schools found that only around 60% of institutions had formal professional development programs designed to help prepare graduate students for nonacademic careers.

Engagement with industry can happen at all levels, from departmental to institutional and from administrator-led to student-organized. To help students make successful connections with industry, departments should both provide graduate students with relevant networking resources and encourage them to develop their own engagement opportunities.

For example, UC Berkeley has several groups aimed at graduate professional development. At the institutional level, GradPro and QB3-Berkeley provide umbrella opportunities such as career counseling, networking, and development workshops. At the grassroots level, Beyond Academia and CDIPS are student organizations that invite PhD-holding speakers from industry to give perspective on their transitions from academia and promote networking opportunities between current and former PhD students. Those groups provide invaluable resources for graduate students interested in nonacademic careers.

Building strong, well-structured biophysics education programs will help attract students with different backgrounds and interests. There is some evidence that biophysics has already proved successful at improving gender balance: According to a recent American Institute of Physics report, women are more likely to have a dissertation subfield of biophysics than men (12% versus 6%). (See “Why does biophysics attract a disproportionate number of women?” Physics Today online, 7 June 2021.) Building a diverse talent pool will improve the creativity and relevance of biophysics research and can serve as an example for other physics subfields.

Biophysics is full of exciting new research, and graduate education should keep pace with those developments. Now is the time for faculty and program administrators to leverage that growth to reexamine and improve their programs. Students studying biophysics should clearly communicate their training needs with faculty and encourage them to continue improving biophysics education as the field evolves. Programs that successfully evolve and modernize will lead the way in educating the next generation of scientists.

Outside resources

Biophysics graduate students, especially those in departments with few dedicated biophysics faculty, can benefit from programs outside their home institution and those in complementary fields such as computer science or biology. Departments should publish or share lists of relevant conferences, summer schools, professional development opportunities, and appropriate professional societies. Examples include the following:

Many events are currently being offered virtually due to COVID-19 precautions, thereby lowering barriers to engage with the larger biophysics community.

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