Our History

The Department of Physiology & Biophysics is a relatively new, basic science department at BUSM formed from the merger of the former Department of Physiology and the stand-alone Biophysics Department at the Medical School in the year 2000. Commonalities in research interests that include molecular and cellular physiology, biophysics, and most prominently structural biology made the two departments a natural fit. The merged department was first led by Donald M. Small, M.D., an internationally recognized physician-scientist who earlier elucidated the component structure of the gallstone and determined molecular mechanisms of biliary disease and atherosclerotic plaque development. Beginning in 2005, departmental leadership was assumed by David Atkinson, Ph.D., a preeminent scientist in the field of blood lipids and lipoprotein structure and metabolism, and then in 2021 by William Lehman, Ph.D., an expert in thin filament regulation of muscle contraction.

The original Department of Physiology (established in 1873) had research programs by the 1990s encompassing muscle mechanisms, computational biochemistry, ion channels, visual receptors, enzyme dynamics, and cellular and molecular physiology. As mentioned, several of these research programs utilized and continue to use a structural approach, most significantly x-ray crystallography and high-resolution electron microscopy. The department also had a major commitment to preclinical teaching, and its faculty had developed outstanding preclinical physiology courses in the School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, and the Master of Arts in Medical Sciences Degree Program that consistently received the highest evaluations. The Department of Physiology traditionally had close ties with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and joint appointees in the Department and at the MBL have included the late Dr. Osamu Shimomura, the Nobel Laureate who discovered green fluorescent protein.

The Department of Biophysics (established 1989) was a research-oriented department with active, well-established research programs in molecular biophysics and structural biology and an established reputation in the biophysics of lipids, membranes, and lipoproteins. Focused recruitment built on the department’s strengths and broadened the research programs in the rapidly growing area of structural biology. Furthermore, the department developed a very successful graduate program in biophysics. The department established four major core methodologies in structural biology (macromolecular crystallography, structural nuclear magnetic resonance, structural electron microscopy, and spectroscopy/calorimetry). These facilities have subsequently been updated and ancillary equipment added with funds from the School of Medicine and from shared instrumentation grants together with individual investigator grants.

By bringing together the faculties of the two former departments, the common research interests now encompass many facets of structural and cell biology, molecular and cellular physiology, molecular biophysics, computational biochemistry, neurobiology, and visual reception. At the same time, the department has made a significant effort to evolve the graduate PhD programs into a new cohesive, strengthened program that bridges all aspects of cellular and molecular physiology, biophysics, and structural biology.

While the department is a research-intensive, cohesive unit that employs modern methods to understand fundamental processes in biology to provide the underpinnings of disease, it continues to play a major and vital role in the preclinical teaching of human organ, endocrine and neurophysiology in the School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, the Physician Assistant, and the Master of Arts in Medical Sciences programs. Furthermore, education and training of the future scientists, researchers, and teachers in biomedical sciences through our participation in the integrated Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS) at BUSM is a major mission of the faculty. In keeping with the department’s commitment to teaching, all faculty are expected to participate in our teaching efforts in addition to carrying out their scholarly research activities.