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Research

Biological Physics

actin cell

Biological physics is the study of physical processes that govern living systems, ranging from the molecular to the macroscopic scale. These interactions incorporate a diverse array of physics themes including force balance, adhesion, diffusion, energy transfer and non-equilibrium mechanics and drive biological processes such as shape change, tissue development and homeostasis. 

As an interface between multiple fields, the opportunities for research span a variety of broad approaches. Within the department there are the following research focus areas

Cellular Mechanics

Professor Patrick Oakes is a biological physicist who studies cellular force generation, in particular the cytoskeleton and its many associated proteins. His group is interested in how cells regulate and leverage mechanical interactions as signaling pathways to control processes like adhesion, migration, and cellular shape changes. His work incorporates quantitative high-resolution microscopy, image processing, optogenetics, and substrate engineering, with traditional biochemical and genetic approaches. 

Tissue Morphogenesis

Professor Dan Bergstralh and his research group study how single-cell behaviors, including division and cell-cell adhesion, are coordinated to build and maintain biological tissues. The lab uses high-resolution live-imaging to address this set of problems, and employs a range of biological systems that includes fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) and three-dimensional cultured tissue models. Professor Bergstralh’s lab is located in the Biology Department.

Medical Imaging

Professor Thomas Foster works on fundamental problems of photodynamic therapy. In this technique, radiation and chemical act locally with the help of oxygen to destroy cancerous cells. He studies this process at the molecular interaction stage and has made important advances in the quantitative aspects of this therapy. 

Professor Jianhui Zhong works on the use and development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques for studying changes in biological tissues. Recent focuses of his work include modeling of reduced diffusion in brain ischemia, diffusion-weighted MRI for the detection of neuronal electrical activities, quantitative measurements of tumor oxygenation and flow, and the development of intermolecular multiple-quantum coherence (iMQC) MRI. 

Both Professor Foster and Zhong’s laboratories are in the University’s Strong Memorial Medical Center.

Biomolecular Sensing

Professor Lewis Rothberg works on biomolecular sensing and develops new assays that are useful for clinical and research applications. These are based on optical or electrical detection of small quantities of unmodified oligonucleotides or important proteins, and are carried out in collaboration with researchers at the Medical Center.

Neural Responses and Behavior

Professor Ralf Haefner's primary scientific interest lies in understanding how the brain forms percepts and uses them to make decisions, especially in the visual domain. In particular, he is interested in how the brain's perceptual beliefs about the outside world are represented by the responses of populations of cortical neurons and how their spiking activity gives rise to percepts and decisions. Mathematical models are constructed and used to try and explain neural responses and behavior.

Additional Research Opportunities

Research opportunities in biological physics exist with faculty in other units of the University.

Professor David Matthews is a theorist in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the University Medical Center. His group is interested in problems relating to the prediction of RNA structure from its sequence, using both low and high-resolution models.

Professor Alan Grossfield's lab uses molecular modeling to understand how structure and fluctuations control biological function. Historically, they've focused on biological membranes and membrane proteins, particularly the mammalian dim-light receptor rhodopsin and other G protein-coupled receptors, as well as the thermodynamics and kinetics underlying the functions of membrane-active antimicrobial lipopeptides. More recently, his group has also begun work to understand the physical origins of amyloid formation of alpha-synuclein, the primary protein found in the insoluable plaques characteristic of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

The department also participates in the MD/PhD program at the University, enabling particularly well prepared students the opportunity to work simultaneously toward the MD degree and the PhD degree in physics.

Biological Physics Links