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What Biophysics Is

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary frontier of science in which the principles and techniques of physics are applied to study living things and how they work. Biophysicists are also involved in applying their knowledge of fundamental physics to develop and implement new techniques for analyzing organisms. Biophysicists may even facilitate the application of biological knowledge to problems in physics. The Undergraduate Program in Biophysics is a path of study which allows students to learn not only fundamentals of biology and physics, but also how to apply the laws and methods of physics to understand biological processes.

An introduction to biophysics is provided at the website York University Biophysics. Besides describing what biophysics is all about, the site provides links to articles and videos about current topics. It also gives an overview of the myriad of exciting career opportunities afforded to students with a background in the field.

Helen Freedhoff First Year Award

The Helen Freedhoff First Year Award is in memory of Dr. Helen Sarah Freedhoff. She was the first woman appointed as a physics professor at York University where she was a model citizen of her department. Eligible students will be domestic and/or international entering undergraduates, admitted to the Faculty of Science, Physics and Astronomy department (including Biophysics). Recipients of the award will receive $5000 upon full-time enrolment and $5000 after a 12-week research placement with a Faculty of Science professor during the summer following the first year of study. Please see the full award description for detailed eligibility requirements and how to apply.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Undergraduate Program in Biophysics at York University is a comprehensive four-year undergraduate degree program that allows students to learn about biophysics and its applications. The program is special because it is strong in both physics and biology, focussed by courses dedicated to biophysics, and sufficiently broad in scope to expose students to knowledge and techniques applicable not only to humans but to all of the kingdoms of life. Students acquire a theoretical and practical understanding of biology, physics and biophysics through both lecture-based and lab-based courses. The program offers experiences with lasers that are unique in Canada. Practical skills in mathematics and computing are developed by promoting applications to physical and biophysical problems. Powers of lateral thinking are enhanced through the mixing of physics and biology courses and the unification of material through biophysics courses. In the end, students learn to recognize biological problems that could benefit from physical insights as well as physical principles that might productively confront biological challenges. Most important, students gain the ability to think critically and to analyze and solve complex problems, talents that are in high demand in both the private and public sectors.

Highlights of the program include:

  • easy access to dedicated professors and a teaching and learning environment of the highest quality
  • curricula that are strong experimentally, theoretically, and computationally
  • instruction by professors conducting experimental, theoretical, and/or computational research in a wide variety of fields
  • laboratory experiences that are among the most sophisticated in the nation
  • training in laser physics that is among the most sophisticated for undergraduates in all of Canada.
  • an abundance of opportunities to participate in world-class research projects led by York professors

Curricular details are given in the Biophysics Undergraduate Handbook.

Interest in biophysics is exploding as a result of a realization that biological phenomena cannot be understood fully without physical insight. Students undertaking studies in biophysics can have the satisfaction of becoming players in a real frontier of modern science with a vast potential for breakthroughs. Headlines reveal a breathtaking range of scientific endeavour. At a macroscopic level, biophysicists are exploring how organisms develop and how they see, hear, taste, feel, and think. Also, they are examining activities such as movement, breathing, muscle contractions, and the operation of bones. Research along these avenues can have significant technological spinoffs, such as the development of better robots. At a microscopic level, biophysicists are studying how cells move and divide, how they harness and process energy, and how they react to external stimuli. Particularly interesting subjects include how a muscle cell converts the chemical energy of ATP into movement, how DNA can exactly replicate itself during cell division, and whether the folding of DNA defines a “second genetic code”. Spinoffs include the development of nanotechnology founded upon the unique mechanical and electrical properties of biomolecules. To facilitate their explorations, biophysicists are at the cutting edge of research aimed at developing new or improved techniques of imaging, diagnosis, and analysis.

Because of the breadth of their training, students who graduate from the Biophysics Program at York University have a wide range of career options. Jobs for which training in biophysics would be an asset exist in both the private and public sectors, including aerospace, agriculture, biotechnology, computing, energy, environmental science, fashion, forensics, health, imaging, medicine, nanotechnology, neuroscience, pharmaceuticals, robotics, teaching, and vision. For example, there is demand for biophysicists in many large and small biomedical companies and in public institutions such as government laboratories, research units in hospitals, and public policy agencies. Companies and organizations engaging in activities with biophysical roots are highlighted here. B.Sc. graduates who want a career in research are well prepared to move forward to graduate studies.

Many jobs for which biophysicists are suited aren't necessarily labeled as being for biophysicists. Rather, they simply require individuals with the skills of biophysicists. A B.Sc. graduate should focus on selling these skills. Where biophysicists excel is in solving challenging problems, and they are aided in doing so by their strengths in:

  • reasoning
  • analysis
  • critical thinking
  • technical writing
  • mathematics
  • computing
  • experimentation
  • instrumentation and data acquisition

A fact sheet about careers for physics graduates, including common job titles, is here. An interesting study of career paths of physics graduates in the United Kingdom (2006-10) is given here. More information about careers in which a background in physics would be valued is provided here.

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) has tracked where B.Sc. graduates are employed, and statistical summaries are presented here. Check out AIP Career Resources for more advice. Information about the employment of Canadian B.Sc. graduates is presented by the Canadian Association of Physicists here.

To help you to prepare to embark on a career that utilizes your skills, check out the Careers Toolbox of the AIP Career Pathway Project.

Professional schools want people who can think. A student's educational path is of secondary importance. Biophysicists can think. Students with a physics background are among the top performers on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). The proof is here. So, by integrating physics with the life sciences, a biophysics degree provides a student with outstanding prospects for a career in medicine. Biophysics is also a good starting point for a career in optometry or in dentistry. Additionally, students who graduate from the Biophysics Program at York University are well-prepared for diploma programs in radiation therapy, ultrasound, and other applied health sciences, such as offered by the Michener Institute.

Biophysics graduates are among the most valuable contributors to the teaching profession because they are so versatile. Students who graduate from the Biophysics Program at York University achieve strong backgrounds in biology, biochemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science, so they are capable of teaching a wide range of courses in school curricula. In Ontario, biophysics majors who wish to become teachers would normally apply for admission into a teacher education program following completion of their degree. It is very difficult to undertake studies in education concurrently, partly because of the possibility of course conflicts, but particularly because of the teaching practicum, which requires students to work off campus.

Students who wish to embark upon a research career must go on to graduate studies. Those who wish to lead research require a Ph.D. York’s Undergraduate Biophysics Program is a logical starting point, especially for students who want the widest possible choice of options for study. The Program offers excellent preparation for graduate studies in biophysics or biological physics. With judicious selection of courses, the Program facilitates graduate studies in physics or biology, too. Notably, students with a B.Sc. in a discipline of physics who choose to go on to graduate school are among the top performers on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). [see the interesting analysis of data from 2009-10, and also a summary of data from 2013-16].

To be eligible to major in biophysics at York University starting in first year, it is necessary to have passed the following courses or their equivalents:

ENG4U: 12U English (a University requirement)
SPH4U: 12U Physics
SBI4U: 12U Biology
MHF4U: 12U Advanced Functions
MCV4U: 12U Calculus and Vectors

12U Chemistry (SCH4U) is recommended but not required for entry into the Biophysics Program, but students lacking it must make it up prior to second year (York University offers an equivalent course).Applicants admitted to York University who lack any of the requirements cannot become biophysics majors until such time as the deficiencies are corrected. Those who wish to become biophysics majors can initially enroll as "undeclared majors". York University offers bridging courses (high school equivalents) to help such students meet the entry requirements of the Program.

For applicants from Ontario high schools, admission and scholarships are based upon the best six 12U/M courses, which must include all pre-requisite courses for the declared major. Presently, the minimum per cent average required for admission to the Biophysics Program is around the high seventies.

Students start by taking survey courses in biology, chemistry, and physics, along with supporting courses in mathematics and computer science. Specialized courses in biology, physics, and biophysics follow. Students are grounded in foundational physics disciplines such as electromagnetism, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics as well as foundational biology disciplines such as genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology. Biophysics courses confront the physics behind problems in the life sciences. Students have a wide range of choices starting in third year, ranging from photosynthesis to biomechanics on the biology side and electronics to fluid dynamics on the physics side. Rich laboratory experiences accompany lecture-based courses in all four years. Required courses and the suggested rate of progress are given in the Biophysics Undergraduate Handbook.

Currently, there are about 100 students in the first-year physics class (PHYS 1010 6.0) and about 500 students in the first-year biology classes (BIOL 1000 3.0 and BIOL 1001 3.0). In physics, numbers decline to 80 in second year, 40 in third year, and 20 in fourth year. The larger numbers in first and second year are a consequence of enrolments by majors in other disciplines, such as atmospheric science and engineering. The reduction in fourth year is due in part to the absence of Bachelor's (three-year) students. Biophysics courses typically have half a dozen to a dozen students. Enrolments are much larger in biology courses that are taken by majors hoping to go into medicine. However, in advanced courses not taken by such students, the numbers are comparable to those in physics.

Many professors engage undergraduate students in their research. Engagement can take place through a paid “work/study” position or through a one-semester research course in the third or fourth year of study, any of which is possible throughout the year. Biophysics students in their third year of study also have the opportunity to participate in the York Internship Program, which enables them to gain a paid internship outside of the University for up to 16 months.

Biophysics is a Specialized Honours Program, and as such students are required to achieve an average grade of C+ or higher (York University Grade Point Average of 5.0 or higher) over all courses in order to graduate.

At York University, degrees (namely, the fancy pieces of paper) do not specify departments, programs, or streams. All students graduating from the Biophysics Program would receive a degree that merely states the degree option taken, e.g., "B.Sc., Specialized Honours". On the transcript, however, the full details of a student’s educational path are given. So, for a student graduating from the Biophysics Program, a transcript would show: Faculty of Science, B.Sc., Spec. Hnrs., Biophysics.

To learn what biophysics is all about, go to the website York University Biophysics.

The Undergraduate Program in Biophysics at York University, including the entire complement of courses, is described in detail in the Biophysics Undergraduate Handbook.

Information about possible careers for B.Sc. graduates in Biophysics can be found here. Opportunities for physics graduates in general are described here.

Research in biophysics is undertaken in many different Departments at York University. Researchers are unified under the field "Biological Physics" in the Graduate Program in Physics and Astronomy. A summary of researchers and their interests is given here.