Biophysics of Excitable Cells (PHYS*2030)

Code and section: PHYS*2030*01

Term: Winter 2023

Instructor: Vladimir Ladizhansky


Course Information 

Course Calendar Description 

An intermediate biophysics course with special emphasis on the physical properties of nerve cells and of biological transducers such as the ear and the eye. Prerequisite(s): 1.00 credits in physics (excluding PHYS*1020, PHYS*1600, PHYS*1810) 

Credit Weight: 0.5 


Role Name Office Email
Instructor Vlad Ladizhansky SSC 1251
T.A. Marie Pinto TBA

Lectures and Tutorials

Delivery Day Time Location
Lectures Monday, Wednesday, Friday 9:30 – 10:20 AM ROZH 102
Tutorial Section 1: Tuesday
Section 2: Monday
08:30 - 09:20 AM
02:30 - 03:20 PM
MINS 106
MINS 103

Office Hours

By appointment, please email your TA or instructor.   

Course Materials

Required Text

  • "Biophysics of Excitable Cells" by G.H. Renninger, U. of G., 2003.  Available from the UG Bookstore. 

Recommended Texts

  • "From Neuron to Brain" by J.G. Nicholls et al.  (Library: QP 355.2.K83 2001)  
  • “Principles of Neural Science" by E.R. Kandel et al.  (Library: QP 355.2.P76 2013) 

Course Website

Lecture notes, problem sets, and supplementary materials will be available on Courselink

Course Objectives 

The main objectives of this course are to provide a basic understanding of the physical phenomena underlying nerve and membrane activity, and to illustrate how these phenomena are applied to different types of excitable cells.  

By the end of this course students will be able to… 

  1. Describe how physical principles influence the structure and function of excitable cells. 
  2. Illustrate how physical phenomena can be applied to different types of excitable cells. 
  3. Solve numerical problems using circuit analysis with various components including membrane resting and action potentials, membrane conductance and current flowing through cell membranes under different physiological conditions.   
  4. Explain membrane and nerve activities with reference to the relevant underlying physical phenomena that give rise to them.  
  5. Analyze how the principles of diffusion and electricity apply to biological membranes and individual nerve cells and how these result in cell resting and action potentials under different conditions. 
  6. Apply the appropriate physical models to solve numerical problems describing sensory functions including hearing, vision, olfaction, taste.  
  7. Generate simple circuit models to describe excitable cell membranes for excitable cells specific to the sensory systems. 
  8. Compare and contrast the mechanisms underlying sensory functions of vision, hearing, olfaction, taste. 

Course Assessment 

Assessment Details Weight
Problem Sets 4 total, 8% each 32%
Midterm Date and room TBA 28%
Final Exam April 15, 11:30-01:30PM
Room TBA
Total See Above 100%


Tutorials will be held every weekly unless otherwise announced. The tutorials are an important part of the course - they provide practice and assistance with solving numerical problems.  

Problem Sets

These contain mainly numerical problem-solving questions showcasing the application of physics to biological membranes and sensory systems. There will be four (4) problem sets worth 8% each and have deadlines throughout the semester: 

  • Problem Set 1: February 6      
  • Problem Set 2: February 27
  • Problem Set 3: March 20     
  • roblem Set 4: April 10 

The Problem Sets should be submitted ELECTRONICALLY on the dates indicated above, by 11 PM, to the drop-box set up on the Courselink. 

Midterm examination

Time and room TBA. In the first half of the course, physics principles are reviewed with specific application to cell membranes. The midterm is worth 28% of the total course grade. 

Final Examination

Saturday April 15, 11.30AM, location TBA. In the second half of the course, sensory systems are discussed in detail with the application of physics phenomena and circuit models. The final exam is cumulative as the course builds throughout the semester and has both numerical and qualitative questions. The final exam is worth 40% of the total course grade. 

Late Assignments

The penalty for late assignments is a 20% deduction per day, to a maximum of two days. You will be given ample time to complete your assignments; accordingly, you will be required to provide medical documentation if you wish to submit your assignment later than two days after the deadline.  

Course Statements

Collaboration versus Copying

Scientists work alone or in groups, very often consulting fellow scientists and discussing their research problems with peers. Collaboration is a feature of scientific activity and there are many benefits to working with others. However, no ethical scientist would ever publish or claim the work of others as his or her own and generally scientists give reference to the appropriate source of ideas or techniques which are not their own.

You are a young scientist and, in this spirit, I encourage you to discuss with others as you learn the material and work on the problem assignments. However, the work that you submit as your assignment must be your own and not a copy of someone else’s work. Identical scripts will be given a mark of zero and plagiarism will be dealt with severely. I encourage you to cite your references, citing books and other articles when they are used and acknowledging discussions with those who have helped you in your understanding and completion of the problem. This is good scientific practice.

Course Evaluation Information

The Department of Physics requires student assessment of all courses taught by the Department. These assessments provide essential feedback to faculty on their teaching by identifying both strengths and possible areas of improvement. In addition, annual student assessment of teaching provides part of the information used by the Department Tenure and Promotion Committee in evaluating the faculty member's contribution in the area of teaching. The Department's teaching evaluation questionnaire invites student response both through numerically quantifiable data, and written student comments. In conformity with University of Guelph Faculty Policy, the Department Tenure and Promotions Committee only considers comments signed by students. Your instructor will see all signed and unsigned comments after final grades are submitted. Written student comments may also be used in support of a nomination for internal and external teaching awards.

NOTE: No information will be passed on to the instructor until after the final grades have been submitted.

University Statements

COVID-19 Disclaimer

Please note that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may necessitate a revision of the format of course offerings and academic schedules. Any such changes will be announced via CourseLink and/or class email. All University-wide decisions will be posted on the COVID-19 website and circulated by email.  

The University will not normally require verification of illness (doctor's notes) for fall 2020 or winter 2021 semester courses.  However, requests for Academic Consideration may still require medical documentation as appropriate.

Email Communication

As per university regulations, all students are required to check their e-mail account regularly: e-mail is the official route of communication between the University and its students.

When You Cannot Meet a Course Requirement

When you find yourself unable to meet an in-course requirement because of illness or compassionate reasons please advise the course instructor (or designated person, such as a teaching assistant) in writing, with your name, id#, and e-mail contact. The grounds for Academic Consideration are detailed in the Undergraduate and Graduate Calendars.  

Drop Date

Students will have until the last day of classes to drop courses without academic penalty. The deadline to drop two-semester courses will be the last day of classes in the second semester. This applies to all students (undergraduate, graduate and diploma) except for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Associate Diploma in Veterinary Technology (conventional and alternative delivery) students. The regulations and procedures for course registration are available in their respective Academic Calendars. Undergraduate Calendar - Dropping Courses 

Copies of Out-of-class Assignments

Keep paper and/or other reliable back-up copies of all out-of-class assignments: you may be asked to resubmit work at any time.


The University promotes the full participation of students who experience disabilities in their academic programs. To that end, the provision of academic accommodation is a shared responsibility between the University and the student. When accommodations are needed, the student is required to first register with Student Accessibility Services (SAS). Documentation to substantiate the existence of a disability is required; however, interim accommodations may be possible while that process is underway. Accommodations are available for both permanent and temporary disabilities. It should be noted that common illnesses such as a cold or the flu do not constitute a disability. Use of the SAS Exam Centre requires students to book their exams at least 7 days in advance and not later than the 40th Class Day.

Academic Integrity

The University of Guelph is committed to upholding the highest standards of academic integrity, and it is the responsibility of all members of the University community-faculty, staff, and students-to be aware of what constitutes academic misconduct and to do as much as possible to prevent academic offences from occurring. University of Guelph students have the responsibility of abiding by the University's policy on academic misconduct regardless of their location of study; faculty, staff, and students have the responsibility of supporting an environment that encourages academic integrity. Students need to remain aware that instructors have access to and the right to use electronic and other means of detection. Please note: Whether or not a student intended to commit academic misconduct is not relevant for a finding of guilt. Hurried or careless submission of assignments does not excuse students from responsibility for verifying the academic integrity of their work before submitting it. Students who are in any doubt as to whether an action on their part could be construed as an academic offence should consult with a faculty member or faculty advisor. Undergraduate Calendar - Academic Misconduct 

Recording of Materials

Presentations that are made in relation to course work - including lectures - cannot be recorded or copied without the permission of the presenter, whether the instructor, a student, or guest lecturer. Material recorded with permission is restricted to use for that course unless further permission is granted.


The Academic Calendars are the source of information about the University of Guelph’s procedures, policies, and regulations that apply to undergraduate, graduate, and diploma programs. Academic Calendars