Chemical and Physical Biology

The Chemical and Physical Biology (CPB) concentration provides students with a broad foundation in the physical and life sciences. This concentration is designed for students interested in applying quantitative tools, physical concepts, and chemical principles to the study of biology.

Remarkable progress in the last four decades has revealed the atomic structure of proteins, enzymes, and genes; the nature of the genetic code; and how genes can be turned on or off in response to the demands of the environment. As our understanding of fundamental biological processes has increased, so has our appreciation that the focus on information transfer through nucleic acids provides an inadequate basis for understanding living systems. The activities of proteins are regulated by post-translational modifications—chemical changes in protein structure—and are affected by small signaling molecules. Dissecting metabolic pathways and reconstructing cellular networks requires supplementing the traditional arsenal of molecular, genetic, biochemical, and cell biological techniques with advances in chemical and physical methods that make it possible to characterize the state of a biological system under a given set of conditions. Chemical and physical biology provides a link between classical approaches to studying biology and the chemical tools and physical methods required to understand dynamic changes in complex biological systems.

Students who are interested in understanding living systems in detail will require considerable proficiency in mathematics and physics as well as a broad background in both chemistry and biology. In its emphasis on quantitative, physical, and chemical tools, this concentration represents a significant departure from traditional undergraduate programs of study in the biological and life sciences. Our goal is to provide the next generation of life scientists with the background needed to make new advances in the quantitative understanding of living systems. The CPB concentration is intended primarily for students considering careers in research.

All students are required to participate in a tutorial unless engaged in thesis research. Tutorials for students in both Chemical and Physical Biology and Molecular and Cellular Biology are offered by the Board of Tutors in Biochemical Sciences, which was established in 1926. Each tutor holds a PhD and/or an MD degree and meets with her or his students, singly or in small groups, about twice a month to discuss topics tailored largely to individual interests and needs. Tutorial sessions typically consist of readings selected from the primary literature or relevant texts. Mentoring on career choices, the research experience, and other academic issues is a logical extension of the tutorial. The tutorial is not taken for credit and therefore does not appear on the study card or transcript. Click here to view a handout that describes the history, goals, and format of the tutorial program.

All students are required to obtain a minimum of one term of laboratory research experience. This requirement may be fulfilled through a project lab course, a term of laboratory research (Chemical and Physical Biology 91r), or research for a senior thesis (Chemical and Physical Biology 99).

A thesis based on laboratory research is required to be eligible for honors in the Chemical and Physical Biology concentration. Students are encouraged to begin thesis research in a laboratory no later than the start of their junior year.