Attracting new biophysicists: UVA event discusses creating and maintaining graduate and undergraduate programs specific to biophysics

Discussion: attracting biophysicists in universities

Event attendees discussed options for attracting more undergraduate and graduate students to biophysics.

On June 15, we held a Biophysical Society regional interface meeting at the University of Virginia.  We had about 50 attendees from the Mid-Atlantic States joined us for what turned out to be a beautiful day in Charlottesville, Va.  In addition, we were delighted that Bridget Swartz and Ellen Weiss from the Biophysical Society office drove to central Virginia to join us. The meeting theme was “Creating Biophysics Undergraduate Majors.” We all know that there are very few college seniors or recent graduates that have specific interest in getting a PhD in biophysics.

The question of the day was: How can we improve the visibility of biophysics graduate programs or create undergrad programs that would attract majors? We had five talks from program leaders around Virginia, including Gina MacDonald from James Madison University, who told us about JMU’s efforts to set up a biophysical chemistry major, and Lou De Felice from Virginia Commonwealth University, who described how biophysics permeates throughout VCU in both the main and medical school campuses as well as in various centers. De Felice also described his methods of attracting students to VCU’s graduate program. Linda Columbus from the University of Virginia described the development of a lab-based undergraduate course in protein structure-function including the very important aspects of assessment. Will Guilford and Robert Bryant, also from UVA, discussed approaches and challenges to setting up a scientific major with specific considerations for biophysics. Our keynote speaker, Karen Fleming from Johns Hopkins University, gave us a wonderful overview of the biophysics major and the insights she has gained from directing the Johns Hopkins program.

There was lively discussion associated with all of the talks, including agreements that biophysics oriented programs and courses attract better students, experiential and active learning works extremely well in our field, and students are interested in learning a broad range of materials from the theoretical to the practical. There was emphasis that learning the basics such as Beer’s Law and how to make buffers may be among the most important lessons.

Biophysics students

Biophysics students presented research posters during the event.

At the concluding reception, several biophysics students presented research posters and there were many discussions about both research and education. It became clear that regional meetings offer tremendous value by allowing us to talk about issues that are unique to our area. There was a consensus to commit to holding similar gatherings every two years and to rotate the meetings among our campuses.

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