Physical Biology of the Cell

Students will be introduced to the construction of physical models in biology.
Every student will build a microscope and take the kind of quantitative data that is necessary to test theoretical models.
Students will be introduced to the construction of physical models in biology.
Course Information

Course Date: August 4 – August 25, 2019

Deadline: TBA

2018 Schedule

Directors: Hernan Garcia, University of California, Berkeley; and Rob Phillips, California Institute of Technology

Course Description

Biology is changing at a dizzying pace. The advent of new technologies such as super-resolution microscopies and DNA sequencing, to name but a few, are making it possible to query the inner workings of molecules, cells and multicellular organisms in ways that were previously unimaginable. One of the defining precepts of this three-week course on physical biology is that the kind of quantitative data that emerges from many of these new techniques demands quantitative models. The course will explore the description of a broad array of topics from modern biology using the language of physics and mathematics. This course is aimed at those interested in learning more about how to construct theoretical models of biological systems as well as the use of computational tools to simulate and test the predictions of those models, but who may not have used their quantitative skills as often as they might have liked. We will focus on physical and mathematical model building by drawing examples from broad swaths of modern biology including cell biology (signaling and regulation, cell motility), physiology (metabolism, swimming and flight), developmental biology (patterning of body plans, how size and number of organelles and tissues are controlled), neuroscience (action potentials and ion channel gating, vision) and evolution (population genetics, biogeography). The course will begin by examining the way in which simple order-of-magnitude estimates can be used to provide insights into problems ranging from the fidelity of protein translation to how far a bird can fly without stopping. We will then move on to develop simple theoretical models that make precise predictions about biological phenomena. These predictions will be tested through the hands-on analysis of experimental data and by performing numerical simulations using Matlab. The final part of the course will be dedicated to the development of “theory projects” by working side-by-side with course instructors on cutting-edge problems in modern biology. These projects will allow the students a hands-on introduction to the enabling power of biological numeracy in scientific discovery and make it possible for them to use these tools in their own research.

2018 Course Faculty & Lecturers

Frank Jülicher, Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems
Lena Koslover, University of California, San Diego
Jane Kondev, Brandeis University
Julie Theriot, Stanford University
Phil Nelson, University of Pennsylvania


Jasna Brujic, New York University
Stirling Churchman, Harvard University
Enrique De La Cruz, Yale University
Lillian Fritz-Laylin, UMass Amherst
Joe Howard, Yale University
Michael Laub, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, HHMI Janelia Research Campus
Wallace Marshall, University of California, San Francisco
Dan Needleman, Harvard University
Avi Rodal, Brandeis University
Alvaro Sanchez, Yale University
Elizabeth Villa, University of California, San Diego