Biological Physics

Living systems show a form of self-organized behavior not found in other non-equilibrium systems - almost every aspect of a biological system is able to change, adapt and respond to its environment on a range of timescales. This broad ability to adapt requires the ability to sense compute and change through a diversity of mechanisms. These mechanisms range from molecular interactions on the physiological scale and network-level changes among neurons during learning to population-level responses on eco-evolutionary timescales.

While many challenges are specific to details in each model system, the culture of physics urges us to search for broader organizing principles across scales. Conversely, these novel biological phenomena can expand the scope of physics to adaptive and evolving systems. In this way, our research at the physics - biology interface is based on a two-way street of ideas between the two fields.

The University of Chicago offers a unique environment for research and education at this interface. Over 35 faculty are currently engaged in biological physics research across campus. Interdisciplinary Research Institutes including the Institute for Biological Physics, James Franck Institute, Grossman Institute facilitate inter-departmental collaborations as do graduate programs in Physics, Chemistry and Biophysics. This research offers interdisciplinary training opportunities for individuals with either a biological or physical sciences background. 


Margaret Gardel

Professor; Director, Materials Research Science and Engineering Center.

For more information about Professor Gardel, please visit her webpage.

Arvind Murugan

Assistant Professor.

For more information about Professor Murugan, please visit his webpage.

Stephanie Palmer

Assistant Professor.

For more information about Professor Palmer, please visit her webpage.

Michael Rust

Associate Professor.

For more information about Professor Rust, please visit his webpage.

Cell Dynamics

Cells are the fundamental unit of life - small autonomous units that spontaneously proliferate, move and build multicellular tissue.  To achieve this, collections of macromolecules self-assemble into machinery to drive locomotion, materials that control cell shape and information processing circuits. We seek to understand how these dynamics emerge from macromolecular constituents using diverse theoretical and experimental strategies.  These researchers span the departments of Physics as well as colleagues in Chemistry and Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology.

Aaron Dinner Aaron Dinner
Margaret Gardel

Margaret Gardel

David Kovar David Kovar
Ed Munro Ed Munro
Arvind Murugan Arvind Murugan
Mike Rust Mike Rust
Suri Vaikuntanathan Suri Vaikuntanathan
Vincenzo Vitelli Vincenzo Vitelli
Gregory Voth Gregory Voth

Ecology and Evolution

Living organisms invite explanations of their structure and function using non-linear non-equilibrium physics frameworks. However, those frameworks must be extended to account for a foundational distinction between the living and non-living: even the most complex living systems spontaneously arose through a process of variation and selection from a common ancestor. The driving goal of our research is to unpack the general implications of this simple premise. How is common ancestry and distinct environmental history reflected in the structure of extant organisms? We study systems on scales ranging from single molecules to whole organism physiology and ecosystems using diverse theoretical and experimental strategies. These researchers span the departments of Physics as well as colleagues in Ecology and Evolution, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology and Biochemistry.

Stefano Allesina Stefano Allesina
Sarah Cobey Sarah Cobey
Allan Drummond Allan Drummond
Martin Kronforst Martin Kronforst
Seppe Kuehn Seppe Kuehn
Arvind Murugan Arvind Murugan
Stephanie Palmer Stephanie Palmer
David Pincus David Pincus
Rama Ranganathan Rama Ranganathan
Mike Rust Mike Rust


Understanding how the brain makes fast and precise computations is one of the grand challenges in biological physics. Neural systems also perform these tasks and drive fast behavior despite size, energy, and lifespan constraints. Our research uses a wide array of techniques from statistical physics, graph theory, dynamical systems, machine learning, and probability theory to discover and test the principles of neural function and to make interpretable models of sensory processing, learning, decision making, and behavioral control. Neuroscientists with a firm grounding in math and physics come from many different departments, including Neurobiology, Statistics, and Ecology and Evolution.

Brent Doiron Brent Doiron
Peter Littlewood Peter Littlewood
Jason MacLean Jason MacLean
Stephanie Palmer Stephanie Palmer
Vincezo Vitelli Vincenzo Vitelli

For more information about biophysics at the University of Chicago, including information about other biophysics researchers, please see:
► The Institute for Biophysical Dynamics
► The Biophysical Sciences Program