Avoiding Common Errors in Your Biophysics Course

By Ken Vos

Part of Biophysics For Dummies Cheat Sheet

You, like many students, may come into their first biophysics course with misconceptions. Remember these important points when you take your biophysics course to help you succeed:

  • *Biophysics isn’t modular. You may think of biophysics as modular that you can break down into individual segments or parts. However, all of biophysics is connected and related, so when you’re studying a specific topic in biophysics, you should be asking yourself how it’s connected and fits with the biophysics you already know.

  • Biophysics requires more than memorization. You may think memorization will help you ace the class. Although some memorization is important, memorizing a collection of formulas won’t get you through the course. Some students try to treat their biophysics as a cookbook with recipes instead of a rulebook. In fact, biophysics provides a set of rules that you can apply to many different situations throughout the life sciences.

  • Formulas are finicky. Sometimes students during an examination, in desperation, write down a formula and try to use it without understanding the formula. Mathematical formulas in biophysics are shorthand notation for some physical relationship. Make sure you’re clear in your understanding of what the symbols in a formula mean.

    For example, consider the formula d = v t. In this case, d = v t can mean the distance is equal to the speed times the elapsed time, or it can mean the displacement is equal to the average velocity times the elapsed time. In general, it doesn’t mean the position is equal to velocity times the elapsed time.

  • Units are your friends. Units are a set of standards for physical quantities, such as length and time. If someone says something is 1 foot (1 meter) long, then you know how long it is. If someone says something is 1 long, you do not know if it is 1 inch, 1 foot, 1 micron, or 1 meter.

    Always include your units, even within the calculations. Many students ignore the units and then add them at the end, after all the calculations are complete. For example, when working with angles, they’re sometimes in degrees and sometimes they’re in radians. Your calculator doesn’t know which units you’re working with, so you need to keep your units straight and provide the angle with the correct units to the calculator. Always carry your units throughout the calculation and treat them as algebraic quantities.