About Medical Biophysics

So I mentioned last post that I’m studying medical biophysics, and I wanted to write a little about that here. At the University of Western Ontario (or Western University, whichever you prefer), we have a program called Medical Sciences, which really is your standard life sciences/premed program in many aspects. What sets it apart is the option to specialize in one of many different modules in third year. Students not only learn about the discipline, but also get the chance to work with real researchers in the area. There is some amazing work coming out of Western, in large part thanks to the many research facilities in London (such as Robarts, Lawson).

Medical biophysics is one of the modules available, and it’s one of the smallest programs (most students choose physiology, biochemistry, or not to specialize at all). I think part of the reason why is because of the widespread fear of physics (which is something that I wish to explore in a future post), but the result is a program with less than 20 people. Despite this, I still expected more people because biophysics is one of the strongest areas of research at Western, due to the imaging technology made available by Robarts.

Regardless, it’s been around 2 months since I started in the program and so far it’s been a blast. The curriculum is definitely a change of pace from the first two years of my undergrad, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. There are actually a total of 4 core concentrations of the program, and I’m in the “Medical Science” concentration, which is supposed to be more focused on applied concepts as opposed to a more theoretical physics background. Here’s a quick summary of the core courses I’m taking:

  1. Biomechanics (3300): This course is exactly what it sounds like: the application of mechanics concepts (mostly statics) on biological systems. We look at the forces acting on human and animal parts, and analyse the moments, stresses, strains and other properties that play a part in maintaining stability.

    I find this course really interesting, combining mathematical models and biological concepts to gain an understanding of how our bodies work, and how they could fail. I feel like it is pretty easy to get caught up in the math though, as a lot of the marks I’ve lost were because of silly calculation errors/inconsistencies in the interpretation of geometries.

  2. Math transforms (3505): a math heavy introduction into the analysis of NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) signals, as well as a study of linear time-invariant systems. This is easily my favourite course, but that’s probably because the math comes a little easy to me.

    The first part of the course, which focuses on NMR, seems to only teach enough to understand the physics behind magnetic imaging at a shallow level, but it has taught me a lot about the Fourier transform and its properties. All things said, it does a good job of keeping the focus away from theoretical backgrounds and towards useful mathematical tools instead.

  3. Transport systems (3501): This course investigates the cardiovascular system and its regulation from a biophysical perspective. To me, this course is the most tame in its physical approach, and there is a lot of qualitative understanding that is taught (making it very similar to our human physiology course last year).

    I’ll admit that I didn’t realize how important the blood vessels and microcirculation particularly were that they warranted a course to themselves, but after working with capillaries in the summer and learning about their role in keeping the body in equilibrium, their importance seems obvious. People who tend to prefer more of a biological/physiological approach to things will enjoy this (supposedly).

  4. Optics (3645): Four different professors teaching fundamental theory about the properties of light and how we can leverage them for medical treatment, imaging, and other forms of diagnosis. Topics include discussion of different light sources and their attributes/advantages, the behaviour of light in tissue, photodynamic therapy, and other optical imaging applications.

    I like this course as it gives a lot of background to many tools used in biophysics research, and tries to focus on application without getting too caught up in theory. That being said, it is sometimes hard to explain concepts without introducing some math, and while that’s okay, the expectations for the mathematics are sometimes confusing.

Apart from that, there’s a digital imaging course (3503) and a course on oxygen transport (3507) that I have yet to take, as well as a lab course (but that’s another story).