Scitech | Getting biophysical

Why doesn’t McGill have a biophysics program?

Science is traditionally divided into chemistry, biology, and physics; these form the very core, roots, and essence of not just the word ‘science,’ but the very idea it encompasses. Today, however, it’s interestingly rare to find these underpinnings of scientific research standing discretely.

The fascinating thing about science is its flexibility, its ability to allow one of its subsets to pair with something seemingly unrelated.

Take the study of the brain, for example. If one were to guess, one would likely be satisfied with linking it to compartments of biology such as physiology, anatomy, and neuroscience, and then moving on. But that’s simply not true. A conclusive study of the brain cannot be done without biochemistry, biophysics, biomathematics, and just about bio-anything.

Take virus particles as another example – or the inner workings of the cell. We know unfortunately little about these questions, which one would normally classify under molecular biology. And one wouldn’t be wrong in saying so, just grossly incomplete. It’s almost a crime if biochemistry and biophysics are not incorporated into many aspects of molecular biology. To understand the intricacies of the inner workings of proteins, cells, viruses, and all other things small, biology needs to breed with its counterparts to come to a reasonable conclusion.

It’s this fusion of science (both within its own subdivisions as well as with other areas of study) that leads McGill to have interdisciplinary programs. The birth of cognitive science (a mass combination of neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, computer science, and linguistics) as a major at McGill is indicative of this.

But I am an undergraduate. And I’m writing for a student publication. Therefore, I must have something to complain about. And I do: McGill has ignored a core interdisciplinary field.

I stepped into McGill in 2011, unsure of what I wanted to major in. My primary interest lay in physics, but I began to notice how I was becoming increasingly drawn to aspects of molecular biology and neuroscience. I thought of ways to connect the fields I was interested in. I spoke to professors, I read, and I watched videos on YouTube in search of information and ideas.

Everything pointed in the same direction: biophysics. It took me a while to understand exactly what it was and why it was so important in biology. But once I had its many purposes and goals imprinted in my mind, I set my mind on it.

And so I went to speak to an advisor. But I was quickly disappointed: “What do you mean McGill doesn’t offer a degree in biophysics?”

I just…didn’t get it. McGill, world-renowned for life sciences, hosting some of the best labs and facilities for research in biophysics, didn’t offer a biophysics major. It made absolutely no sense.

“You can always do the major in physiology and physics,” I was told. I made it a point to check the requirements of the major, to get an idea of what it offered. But to me, the fact that it was named “physiology and physics” indicated that it treated the two subjects as entirely different entities. And it did. After perusing the required courses, I saw it as a poorly-designed alternative for students who wanted to study biophysics. For example, the bridge between biology and physics is laden with biochemistry. This major outline didn’t have a single biochemistry requirement. Essentially, the closest thing to biophysics at McGill has very little biology, very little physics, and absolutely no biophysics.

Additionally, the only available course at McGill actually designed with the intention of giving an introduction to biophysics was introduced in the winter of 2012.

I understand that McGill is a public institution that’s undergoing innumerable financial setbacks. And I understand that this just places red tape around the process of introducing new programs. But with global rankings taking a variety of programs into account, the lack of such programs can harm the reputation McGill seeks to maintain. Additionally, not offering undergraduates a major in a field that is so important, research-wise, at McGill, verges on ridiculous.

With more-than-capable professors conducting research in biophysics under different departments (namely anatomy, physics, and physiology), a faculty of biochemistry (a field that overlaps greatly with biophysics), and a world-renowned program in cell and molecular biology, it’s high time McGill looked into making biophysics – a relatively new field that is taking the world of science by storm – accessible to the future scientists it seeks to train.

Synapses and Systems is a biweekly column. S. Azam Mahmood can be reached at 

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