Ontario high-school teachers enjoy launch of York’s Biophysics Program

York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy holds a special evening for high-school physics teachers every year to talk about science and science education, but this year’s event, held Nov. 8 at the Keele campus, had an added twist. The physicists invited the biologists for an interdisciplinary meeting of the minds as a way of launching the new Biophysics Program, which will begin in the Fall of 2007.

“Every science teacher in Ontario was invited,” said Marshall McCall, department Chair. “It proved to be a fantastic thing to have the two solitudes in the same room.” About 80 teachers, some from as far as Collingwood and Peterborough, came to York for dinner and three short talks by Faculty members from different departments in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering. The talks were very well received and the teachers were clearly appreciative and enthused by what they heard. “There’s huge interest in the physics of life,” McCall noted, “the growth is explosive.”

Roger LewTo underline the point, one of the speakers, Roger Lew (right), professor in York’s Biology Department, gave a talk titled “Under pressure: Why I blow up cells”, which he illustrated with video images of exploding cells. It’s all part of his research into the physical properties of cell walls and the pressure levels inside them, which can get as high as the pressure of air inside a bicycle tire. The research is germane to Lew’s research into plant growth.

The talk was one of three given that night, instead of the traditional single lecture, an innovation McCall thinks appealed to his guests and contributed to the excitement in the room.

“Many of the teachers told me that they couldn’t wait to get back to their classes to share what they had learned”, said Paula Wilson, associate dean (student affairs) in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. “Teachers left with handfuls of our flyers, detailing program specifics and admission requirements.” The four-year undergraduate program gives students flexibility in course selection and prepares them for a variety of career possibilities all the way from agricultural and environmental science to forensic and health science, unlike other university programs which focus on medicine.

The talk by Valeria Tsoukanova, professor in York’s Chemistry Department, on “Disappearing Polymers”, held double significance for the program’s launch. Not only is her research into materials for temporary, dissolving surgical pins used in mending broken bones an example of interdisciplinary study – she’s also an example to women thinking of becoming scientists.

One of the primary goals of the new Biophysics Program is to attract more young women to the study of physics, a traditionally male-dominated discipline. McCall said the new program also provides a unique degree pathway for the growing number of students interested in “pre-med” and life science studies, 50 per cent of whom are female.

Logan DonaldsonLogan Donaldson (left), professor in York’s Biology Department, spoke about a new technique he is studying that allows researchers using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to paint a portrait of a molecule with the aid of chemical tracers. The technique is another example of what the Biophysics Program is all about: the study of how living things work. Although the interdisciplinary field of biophysics dates back to the introduction of the x-ray machine in 1895, McCall said the field has really taken off in recent years thanks to new discoveries linking biological function to physical principles. Also, physicists are behind many of the technological innovations driving advances in biological research.

Faculty members from several other departments attended the talks and McCall said he hopes to continue the new format of several small talks by scientists from different disciplines in the future.

After the information sessions and talks, teachers were invited to visit the York Observatory. Professor Paul Delaney provided tours for those who were interested at the end of the evening.  

For more information, visit the Biophysics Program Web site or e-mail biophysics@yorku.ca.