PHY 415/BIO 425: Introduction to Biophysics II (taught in Spring semesters)

A major goal of the course is to provide Biophysics majors (see also the Biophysics major webpage) with a follow-up course to Biophysics I. We here cover more selected topics in biophysics in-depth. Apart from this, the course will be of interest to any Duke advanced undergraduate who would like to learn about how the conceptual and quantitative approaches of physics can further our understanding of biology, and how, in turn, biology can pose interesting and deep problems for physics.

A general goal of biophysics is a quantitative understanding of biological systems through the application of physical principles. Biophysics encompasses a very broad variety of research. This course will emphasize four topics in more depth rather than attempting an overview of all of the biophysics. These topics are (i) physical systems biology, (ii) cell mechanics, (iii) non-equilibrium statistical physics applied to cells and tissues (“active matter”), and some modern biophysical technologies, such as micro-mechanical manipulation techniques and super-resolution imaging techniques.

Students will have the chance to present a cutting-edge biophysics research publication. We also offer the possibility of a small research project involving evaluating unpublished new data from the Schmidt lab.



PHY 174: Frontiers of Biophysics (taught in Fall semesters)

This course is a half-credit undergraduate course that serves to introduce students to biophysics.

Many of the most interesting unsolved questions in biology and medicine can be fruitfully studied and some possibly answered using ideas and techniques from physics. Big questions are: how did life arise and does life exist elsewhere in the universe, how do biomolecules such as enzymes, structural proteins, sensors, or membrane channels accomplish their remarkable feats, how does a single cell “decide” through biochemical computations to grow into a plant or an animal with trillions of cells of different kinds, how does a brain process information and implement behavior, or what are the mechanisms of pathologies such as heart disease or cancer? Most phenomena of life involve intricate dynamical mechanisms and complicated structures. Many problems in biology and medicine also raise interesting and novel questions for physicists and engineers, such as how can we describe dissipative non-equilibrium phases of matter.

Physics 174 focuses on current frontiers of biophysics, and is targeted towards freshmen and sophomores who like biology and who also like the quantitative approaches of physics. The course is also offered to all Duke students who want to get a sense of current hot research topics in the field and who would like to hear outstanding Duke researchers and other guests talk about their research in biophysics. The course also involves student class presentations on current biophysics topics and background lectures.


PHY 771: Active Materials in Biology (not taught on a regular schedule)


This 4-week Mini-course targets graduate students in Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, or other departments, and advanced undergraduate students in the same areas.

The course covers the basics and recent literature on thermodynamic non-equilibrium phenomena important in biology. Active materials or active matter are loosely defined as soft condensed matter systems with dispersed intrinsic force generators. Internal dissipation of energy that manifests itself in structural dynamics and directed or stochastic motions often leads to complex dynamic steady states in biological systems. We will look at prominent examples of such systems and at experiments that have been performed to study the non-equilibrium. We will also look at methods to diagnose, analyze and quantify thermodynamic non-equilibrium and discuss fundamental concepts such as the fluctuation-dissipation theorem, the principle of detailed balance, and the recently introduced fluctuation theorems.


PHY 771: Physics of Cells (not taught on a regular schedule)

This 4-week Mini-course targets graduate students in Physics, Biomedical Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, or other departments, and advanced undergraduate students in the same areas.

This course looks at the basic physical properties of cells, focusing on material properties, forces, and motions. Cells and tissues can be seen as soft condensed matter systems, mainly consisting of lipid-membrane bounded compartments and polymer networks. The complexity of structure and dynamics give cells unique properties. Cells can, for example, behave like a liquid at long time scales and like a solid at short time scales. Looking at the physical properties of cells is complementary to the very well-established biochemical approaches and opens an entirely new window to look at living systems on small scales. We will start with basic polymer physics and a bit of statistical physics and then look at recent experimental results in this area going all the way from single molecules to bacteria and animal cells.