The 2014 Gordon Research Conference on Physics Research and Education 2014: The Complex Intersection of Biology and Physics

Mel Sabella, Chicago State University, and Matthew Lang, Vanderbilt University

Mike Klymkosky leads a discussion

Mike Klymkosky leads a discussion on how biologists and physicists think about energy

The Gordon Research Conference on Physics Research and Education (GRC:PRE) brings together a diverse community of scientists, educators and education researchers every two years to explore the rich intersection of research and education and connect instructors, content researchers and education researchers.

This conference is unique among the Gordon Research Conferences because of the ties it fosters between education and cutting edge research, its diverse set of participants, and its broad goal to make exciting physics topics accessible to undergraduate students in diverse learning environments. Only seven of the roughly 840 GRCs focus on science education. The GRC:PRE also has a different mission than most of the other education-focused GRCs which almost exclusively involve education researchers as speakers, discussants, and participants. This particular GRC, which began in 2000, changes its specific topic each time. In 2014, the focus was the “Complex Intersection of Biology and Physics,” In 2012, the focus was “Astronomy” and in 2016 and 2018 the topics will be “General Relativity and Gravitational Waves” and “Energy,” respectively.

The fields of biological physics and physics education research, with specific focus on the needs and resources of life science students, have experienced tremendous growth in recent years. During the past year and a half, the community of biologists and physicists working in this area have organized theme issues on this topic in the June 2013 CBE – Life Sciences Education1 and in the May 2014 American Journal of Physics.2

In addition to the 2014 GRC, the Introductory Physics for Life Science (IPLS) Community held a conference, described in the previous article, in March 2014. While the focus of the IPLS conference was on introductory physics courses taken primarily by life science students, this GRC:PRE broadened the focus to included talks about research and education at both introductory and upper undergraduate levels. The 2014 GRC also connected scientists within biology and physics and those at the intersection of the two disciplines. Bridging these strands at the GRC provides unique opportunities for collaboration and brings together groups that typically do not regularly interact in more traditional academic venues.

GRCs are designed to encourage open and inclusive discussions. In 2014, a typical day at the GRC:PRE involved five invited talks by leaders in biology, medical physics, biophysics, and education research. Discussants, at each of the sessions, with expertise on the particular topic, engage both the audience and the speakers in thought provoking questions that clarify key issues and move the field forward. Contributed poster sessions in the late afternoons provided an opportunity for participants to present exciting work that often addressed the theme of the biology and physics intersection while engaging in dialogue. Early afternoons at a GRC are free of formal programming and allow participants to have open, unstructured conversations. Because of the diversity of the participants at the GRC:PRE there are also opportunities to address themes that might be outside specific conference topics. In 2014 we organized informal discussions centered on key questions for the community such as: How do biologists, chemists, and physicists think and talk about energy? What topics in Physics might matter to the contemporary biologists and how do we integrate these topics into our respective disciplines? How do the systems we investigate in biology and physics differ in terms of historic contingency and complexity? How does the messy world of real data look in the biology and physics curriculum? These questions were often a focus of individual talks and questions at both the IPLS Conference and the GRC, where spirited controversy was embraced, fostering rich conversations among the participants. Those who needed a break from the science during the afternoon could participate in hiking, fishing, GRC-led trips, or the game of cornhole, complete with cornhole goals displaying the GRC logo.

A number of overlapping themes emerged, from the GRC, the IPLS Conference, and the two theme issues that emphasize the complexity of the intersection of biology and physics and of education and research in this area. We often heard that learning respect for each other and each other’s disciplines is extremely important and that we need to recognize our differences and similarities. Redish et al. state that “Biology and physics faculty tend to have dramatically different views about the nature and structure of knowledge that is appropriate to teach in classes … Including biological authenticity shows respect for the interdisiplinarity.”3 A clear message from both conferences was: take your fellow biologist or physicist to lunch, engage them as a friend and “pick up the check.” We also often heard that there are many ways to motivate students at this intersection. Examples included engaging students in biologically rich contexts or bringing in the social commitment of the students to tie activism and policy work to topics in medical physics.4 One example of a rich context that relates to the everyday life of many of our students can be seen in the Harvard Course on Science and Cooking, which was highlighted in Harvard Magazine and the New York Times in 2010. Students in “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science had just burst into applause … because Professor Michael Brenner had just unveiled the “equation of the week”: a heat transfer equation. The applause became a tradition in the course … “ (Harvard Magazine, 2010) … “Nearly 700 students wanted to enroll. By lottery, 300 got in … “ (NYT, 2010).5

Bringing in diverse communities to explore the intersection of education and research and the intersection of biology and physics at the Gordon Research Conference proved to be very worthwhile for participants at the conference. Many participants stated that they were eager to go back to their institutions and foster connections between biology and physics topics and infuse their courses with exciting avenues of study and modify their courses to better meet the needs of their students. Our hope is that the 2014 GRC:PRE fosters ongoing discussions on this exciting interdisciplinary work.

The GRC was funded by the National Science Foundation, the American Physical Society – Forum on Education, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Physics Education Leadership Organizing Council and the GRC. Funding from these sources allowed the 2014 GRC:PRE to support social functions and travel and registration for students from the undergraduate to graduate level, post docs, two year college faculty, our speakers and discussants, and faculty at all stages of their careers at all types of institutions. This allowed us to involve an extremely diverse group of participants with a common goal of improving the teaching and learning of physics.

Mel Sabella and Matthew Lang were co-chairs of the 2014 Gordon Conference on Physics Research and Education. Mel Sabella is a Professor of Physics at Chicago State University. Matthew J Lang is an Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Molecular Physiology and Biophysics at Vanderbilt University.

  2. Sabella, M., & Lang, M. (2014). Research and education at the crossroads of biology and physics. American Journal of Physics, 82(5), 365-366. (May 2014;
  3. Redish, E. F., Bauer, C., Carleton, K. L., Cooke, T. J., Cooper, M., Crouch, C. H., ... & Zia, R. K. P. (2014). NEXUS/Physics: An interdisciplinary repurposing of physics for biologists. American Journal of Physics, 82(5), 368-377.
  4. Crouch, C. H., & Heller, K. (2014). Introductory physics in biological context: An approach to improve introductory physics for life science students. American Journal of Physics, 82(5), 378-386 &
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Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.