What is physiology?

Physiology is the science of life. The discipline considers how molecules in cells interact to provide specific functions (molecular and cellular physiology) and how organs, which are collections of cell types, have local and distal actions via neural and humoral (e.g. hormones) communication to sustain the life of the organism. The latter represents systems or integrative physiology. Thus physiology is all about what makes our bodies work – how the organs – including the brain – function, how we grow and develop, how we sustain our bodily functions and what happens to these processes during disease and ageing. You can think of physiology as the functional side of biology – with the challenges and rewards of investigating living processes. Physiology contributes to all major aspects of biology, including comparative biology, neuroscience, and the allied disciplines of pharmacology, anatomy and pathology.
What do physiologists do?
Physiologists are specialists in studying the function of cells and tissues. The techniques vary as much as the systems that are being studied. Electrophysiologists study the brain and nervous system, from the level of ion channels within individual nerve cells, to broad electrical field responses in the brain associated with thought and movement. Respiratory physiologists investigate the processes of breathing, while vascular physiologists study the control of blood flow and gas and nutrient delivery to the body. Endocrine physiologists contribute to the understanding of how the body functions via chemical signaling between organs, including the control of growth and development. Kidney physiologists study how the kidneys function to maintain normal fluid and electrolyte balance and produce urine. Muscle physiologists unravel the processes by which we move, and our hearts beat. Gut physiologists undertake research on the processes of nutrient absorption and waste excretion in the body – the amazing rhythmical beating of our gastrointestinal tract, and the hazards of diseases that inflict pain and suffering. Sensory physiologists are neuroscientists – they study the processing of sensory information by our brains that is the foundation of our perception of ourselves and our universe. In biomedicine and animal and cellular biology, physiologists are key members of multidisciplinary teams studying the processes of life and death, collaborating to alleviate suffering in animals and people.
Studying physiology at UNSW
Physiology is a core component of all undergraduate programs in Medicine at UNSW and is also central to biological and biomedical sciences. In the latter, it is available in the Bachelor of Medical Science program and within the Advanced Bachelor of Science degree program (up to honours level).
Undergraduate study in physiology considers growth and development, vascular control, respiratory function, kidney function, endocrinology, neuroscience, as well as sensory and motor function. You will learn how the body works and how to study it. Physiology is a very practical science and the laboratory exercises provide a perspective on how organs, muscles and nerves work – “seeing is believing”! Our lectures, laboratory exercises and tutorials will let you appreciate how your body works (homeostasis) and what can and does go wrong.
Students have the opportunity of developing research skills and practical experience with advanced biochemical, electrophysiological and imaging platforms interfacing with the living organism. Physiology at UNSW is represented by world-class research groups at the forefront of biomedical research. They lend this experience and skill to their teaching in the lecture rooms and in the practical student labs. For summer students, honours students and advanced graduate students, there is the opportunity to be trained in the latest physiological research techniques working alongside leading researchers in world-class research laboratories.
UNSW physiology research groups include:
Careers in physiology
Training in physiology opens up a broad range of career opportunities. These include biotechnology and pharmaceutical research in areas of marketing, sales, intellectual property development; in medical diagnostics and forensic science; in lifestyle and health-industry positions; in occupational health and rehabilitation; in medical careers as physicians and health technicians. Academic careers for physiologists span teaching and research in the discipline.