Cultivating a Biophysics Community

In this section, Professor Jeff Gore shares how cultivating a sense of community among faculty and students involved with the interdisciplinary MIT Biophysics Program is a core purpose of 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology. He notes that the instructors invite faculty members from across disciplines to address students in the course and that this collaboration affords students an opportunity to learn about the broad range of research possibilities in biophysics, as well as an opportunity to learn about the unique pathways faculty members have travelled to become scholars. 

Connecting Students with Faculty across Disciplines

One of the core purposes of 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology is to cultivate a sense of community among people involved with the MIT Biophysics Program, which involves students and researchers from several different departments in the Schools of Science and Engineering. The course develops a cohort of graduate students who know each other from across these different departments. It also helps students meet faculty from across MIT who are involved in biophysics and physical biology research. This latter point is especially important, because it can be surprisingly difficult for graduate students to get to know faculty from across the Institute if they only take a few courses during their time at MIT. There’s so much value in being exposed to the broad range of cutting edge topics being worked on by these faculty members.

Collaborating with Faculty 

We have not found it difficult to encourage faculty to participate in the course. They are happy to do so. In fact, our biggest challenge every year is narrowing the very long list of faculty members doing biophysics research who would like to participate as guest speakers. There are so many talented faculty, and we can only support 10 or 12 in the course each semester.

In making our selections, we strive for a good representation of research topics and departmental affiliations. We try to make sure that we have representation from engineers, chemists, biologists, as well as physicists. We do this because we want students to understand the range of research possibilities that are available to them.

One thing that makes this course so appealing for faculty members is that our students are primarily first-year graduate students. Faculty feel this is a great audience to influence. It’s a wonderful opportunity to show students that biophysics is an exciting area of research, and something they should invest their time in as developing scholars. Some faculty also see their involvement in the course as an opportunity to recruit students for their own research groups.

Recently, we’ve made an effort to involve new faculty in the course. We hope this will encourage these new faculty members to engage with our biophysics community right from the beginning of their time at MIT.

Introducing a Human Element

[Faculty members’] stories add a human element to the course, and this element is by far one of my favorite parts of teaching 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology.

— Jeff Gore

Our guest faculty members tell such interesting stories about how they’ve come to do the research they do and their trajectories toward becoming scholars. It’s fascinating for students to hear that a faculty member entered a doctoral program thinking he or she would study a particular topic and then completely switched topics for his or her dissertation research. I think it’s important for students to see that it is possible to take a meandering path and still end up being an influential scholar. These stories add a human element to the course, and this element is by far one of my favorite parts of teaching 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology.