In this section, Professor Mark Bathe shares the motivation for developing 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology, a course that addresses aspects of scholarship, such as reading scholarly articles and creating figures for research papers, that are rarely addressed in courses focused on specific academic content.
From Seminar Series to Course
When I began teaching at MIT, Jeff Gore, my co-instructor in 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology, was one of the inaugural speakers in a new Biophysics Program seminar series. The seminars featured different researchers speaking about their work. After he joined MIT, Jeff helped organize the seminars, and we both thought it would be natural to build a course, based on the series, that would integrate the speakers and the topics they addressed.
The original model for 20.416J Topics in Biophysics and Physical Biology featured students interacting with the speakers who participated in the seminar series. Students engaged with the speakers, and then, afterward, Jeff and I talked with them about topics relating to how scholarship is produced outside of the lab, such as how to choose a mentor, how to identify a research topic for a thesis, how to present research, and how to write papers—the things graduate students need to know, but are rarely taught in courses focused solely on specific academic content.
The Need to Teach Non-Research Topics
I became aware of the need to teach these non-research topics after starting my own research group at MIT. I quickly realized that with every new student or post-doc that came into the group, we had to address how they should make figures for a paper, how they should write a paper, how posters and papers are designed, and how they could effectively look for literature related to their fields. That was a challenge, and with every new person who joined the group, I thought to myself, “We’re going to have to go over all these topics again.” Jeff recognized a similar need. That was our motivation for creating a course that presented this information in a formalized way that would be most beneficial to beginning graduate students.
Creating a Community
Our motivation for developing the course also stemmed from our desire to develop a sense of community within the MIT Biophysics Program. In particular, we saw the course as an opportunity for students to interact with MIT faculty members working in different areas of biophysics and physical biology. Because many of the students were first-year graduate students from different departments, they appreciated—and continue to appreciate—meeting and learning from researchers from across the Institute. This aspect continues to be a huge draw for the course. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to connect with and learn from members of my broader academic community as a graduate student. The course truly offers students an invaluable experience.