Louis Gerstenfeld, Ph.D., Chairperson, Qualifying Examinations
Tier 1: Scientific Paper Review
The Tier 1 exam is given following the first semester of the second year. Each candidate will choose one of two research papers and write a critical evaluation based on the criteria below. This is a Pass-Fail exam and is designated to determine whether a student needs additional guidance in understanding basic scientific concepts and experimental design and methodologies.
The review should address the following issues in essay and outline format:
- What are the key points and conclusions made in the paper, and what experimental evidence supports each point?
- Describe the principle of two methods used in the paper.
- What are three (or more) technical or conceptual strengths of the paper?
- What are three (or more) technical or conceptual weaknesses of the paper?
- What additional experiments, if any, do you think the authors should perform in order to make their key points more convincingly?
- Propose a new direction the work could be taken further. How would you approach this? Suggest a brief, feasible series of experiments for the new direction.
Tier 2: Mock Research Grant Proposal – Written Examination:
Following completion of all coursework, each candidate will prepare a Mock Research Grant Proposal consisting of a 6-10 page proposal that follows the format of an NIH grant application. The topic of this proposal will be the student’s own thesis research. A rough draft of the Specific Aims page of the proposal must be submitted to and approved by the thesis advisor and the Qualifying Exam Committee Chair, Dr. Louis Gerstenfeld, prior to preparing the full proposal. The student’s thesis advisor will serve as primary mentor for the proposal. The student will develop a proposal that may be complementary to but distinct from the advisor’s existing grants. It is important that the advisor permit the student to explore new avenues and develop new ideas. One of the goals of this type of examination is to give students the opportunity and motivation to read widely and think deeply about their thesis project. The proposal should be a working outline of planned thesis research. It is understood however that this plan may change as the thesis research progresses following the defense of the qualifying exam proposal. The student is allowed to discuss the proposal with colleagues as long as they are made aware that the candidate is developing a proposal for the Qualifying Examination. The candidate should spend about 4-6 weeks preparing the proposal. Each proposal will be critically reviewed by a small Mock Research Grant Proposal committee made up of faculty in the GPMM/Department of Medicine or recruited from the graduate school faculty, as appropriate. A potential benefit of this exercise is that the student may be able to use all or parts of the proposal to write a fellowship grant to support her/his research.
Guide to Writing the Qualifying Exam Proposal
The Mock Research Grant Proposal should follow the format of an NIH R01 or fellowship grant application, but should be limited to 6-10 single-spaced pages (12 pt type) in length, not including references or figures. Like a grant application, the goal of the proposal is to establish a testable hypothesis to address an important question in the thesis research area, design specific aims to answer the question, and describe the approach and experiments to fulfill the specific aims. Writing should be clear, concise, and to the point; here, as in an NIH grant application, quantity over quality is not of value. The format to be followed is:
- Specific Aims. State the overall goal of the research proposal and the hypothesis to be tested. Present the individual specific aims (usually 2-4 aims) with a brief description of the methods to be used to address the aims. (1 page)
- Background and Significance. Review the essential literature in order to provide the background to and the rationale for the proposed experiments. Identify sources of information including reviews and Medline. Summarize primary literature for a knowledgeable but not necessarily expert reader. State the importance of the research to broad, long-term scientific questions. (2 – 4 pages)
- Preliminary Data. Include key figures and description of work already completed by the student that underlies the basis of the proposal. The figures themselves do not count toward the page length. (1-3 pages) (see also 6. Figures below)
- Experimental Design and Methods. Provide an outline of the design of the experiments to be used to address each of your specific aims. Treat each aim individually and describe the approaches to be used and the controls. Include a hypothesis to be tested for each of the aims. Expected results should be delineated, potential experimental difficulties should be discussed, and alternative strategies to achieve the aims should be outlined. (2 – 4 pages)
- References. Provide references at the end of the Research Proposal. Each citation must be complete, and include the names of all authors, title of the article, journal or book, volume, page numbers, and year of publication. The reference list is not included in the 10 page limit of the proposal.
- Figures. Figures that illustrate important Background information, preliminary data or models to be tested may be included in the body of the text or at the end, but will not count towards the page limitation.
Mock Research Grant Proposal – Oral examination:
The Mock Research Grant on Thesis Research will serve as the basis for an oral examination that will test the student’s understanding of the biologic principles, methodologies, and interpretations of the proposal. The student should be prepared to defend the importance of the scientific question and the details of the approach to answering it, including choice of methods and generalities of experimental design and planning of controls. (However, students are not expected to have carried out the experimental techniques or be familiar with every wet laboratory detail of the methodology). A demonstration of thoughtful consideration of alternative approaches is important. The examining committee will also employ the Proposal as a take-off point to assess the student’s breadth of knowledge in the general areas of cellular and molecular mechanisms of disease and the student’s written and oral communications skills. The oral examination committee will be composed of four members including the chair Dr. Gerstenfeld, or an alternate, and the thesis advisor; at least two must be members of the GPMM. The student’s thesis advisor should participate fully in the examination.
Submission of draft of Specific Aims page for approval — by negotiable date
Written Proposal due — at least one week prior to Oral Examination
Oral Examination — must be conducted by December of year 3