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Online biophysics summer school draws interest from around the world

June 25th, 2020

This summer, a jaw-dropping 3,000 undergraduates from dozens of countries have registered for “Physics of Life,” a biophysics summer school offered by the joint Princeton–City University of New York Center for the Physics of Biological Function (CPBF).

With the summer school, the CPBF faculty are hoping to help students bridge the traditional gulf between physics and biology. The summer school program is targeted to physics majors with an interest in biology, but enrollment is open to any undergraduate.

“We want to show you how elements of what living systems do connect to things you’ve learned in physics classes,” said Joshua Shaevitz, a professor of physics and the Lewis–Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics (LSI), as he addressed students in the first online session, which focused on motion and pattern formation in bacteria.

“Our goals are as much inspirational and aspirational as they are educational. We want you to learn something, but we also want you to get excited about new things.”

This is the third summer for the Physics of Life summer school, and the enrollment has jumped a bit from the 24 students who attended the in-person two-week intensive program in previous years. So far, more than 3,000 students registered, more than 1,000 attended the first live events online, and more than 850 have watched the first lecture on the CPBF YouTube Channel.

“I had underestimated how popular this would be,” Shaevitz admitted with a laugh.

“One of the things that we’ve enjoyed about doing this in person [in past years] was really getting to know students from a wide range of backgrounds; that’s obviously going to be much more difficult here,” said William Bialek, the John Archibald Wheeler/Battelle Professor in Physics and the LSI who co-directs the CPBF with Shaevitz.

“On the other hand, there are already 25 times as many of you as we can accommodate when we bring all of you to one place,” Bialek told the students participating in the live broadcast on June 15. “We’re hoping that the spirit of being able to have a dialogue with people from around the world will outweigh the cost of not being able to do it in person.”

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