Ph.D. in Pharmacology
The Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine was honored in July 1997 with the award of a National Institute of General Medical Sciences T32 Instructional Training Grant (Principal Investigator, David H. Farb, Ph.D.), one of only four such pharmacology training grants in New England, was ranked in the top echelon of Ph.D. training programs for research productivity by the National Research Council report. In 24 years since the award, this University-wide Program has flourished, providing a unique interdisciplinary and interdepartmental learning environment for doctoral students.
Program of Study
Pharmacology has historically been an interdisciplinary field, positioned where physiology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, behavioral science, and medicine converge. The pharmacology of this century will bring together an even wider range of disciplines, combining traditional aspects of pharmacology with novel approaches drawn from other disciplines, such as biophysics, biomedical engineering, and molecular genetics.
The predoctoral training program in Biomolecular Pharmacology is based on a training partnership among faculty in the Departments of Pharmacology, Anatomy and Neurobiology, Biology, Biochemistry, Physiology and Biophysics, Chemistry, Biomedical Engineering, and Molecular Medicine. The curriculum formalizes interdisciplinary predoctoral training in molecular pharmacology. Students receive formal training in the principles of molecular pharmacology, as well as in molecular genetic, biophysical, and structural approaches to the study of drug-receptor interactions. A major benefit of the program is to expand opportunities for students to carry out research in these areas.
Oversight and coordination are provided by a Program Graduate Education Committee composed of faculty and student representatives. The structure of the program catalyzes continued and expanded collaborations among the participating faculty and fosters interactions among students and faculty of the participating components. This program produces scientists who have an understanding of and firsthand experience with a broad range of technologies at the cutting edge of research in molecular pharmacology. The excellence of our training program has been recognized nationally by the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences in the form of funding for our Interdepartmental University-wide Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology.
Students enter immediately into the pharmacology core curriculum as preparation for advanced training experiences including an industrial rotation at Pfizer or Biogen. The average tenure of Ph.D. candidates in the Biomolecular Pharmacology training program is five years. The major focus of the training program is the development of expertise in basic and translational research. The first 18 months of the program emphasize formal course work. In addition, on matriculation students begin a sequence of three required laboratory rotations. The laboratory rotations provide students with the opportunity to investigate potential areas for dissertation research while enhancing the breadth of their training.
During the last three years in the program, the primary emphasis is on dissertation research. Students are also required to complete advanced level course work, report on their dissertation research, and participate in activities consistent with their development as future scientists. Details of these activities are provided below. Students in the program receive essential training in pharmacology with a special emphasis on molecular pharmacology. The goal of this program is to produce scientists who have an understanding of, and first-hand experience with, the major questions and technologies on the cutting edge of molecular pharmacology.
Since the inception of this training program, most students have entered through the Department of Pharmacology. Students are also accepted into the program through the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience. Each of these Ph.D. programs requires 64 credit hours for completion plus a qualifying examination and a successful oral defense. Each of the programs has specific requirements, and individual programs of study for the Ph.D. degree are determined by each student in consultation with a faculty advisor and the Graduate Education Committee.
This ensures that students entering the program from departments other than Pharmacology satisfy the requirements of their respective departments. Students who enter through Pharmacology complete the following core courses: Foundations in Biomedical Science, Physiology, Molecular and Translational Pharmacology, Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology, Systems Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics, Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences, and three advanced electives. The training plan has been approved by the participating departments as fulfilling their requirements, without requiring an excessive course load. Students spend summers engaged in research and are encouraged to begin rotations during the month of July prior to the start of courses.
The Core — 18 credits minimum
Foundations in Biomedical Sciences I, II, IV (GMS FC 711 Protein Structure, Catalysis and Interaction, GMS FC 712 Structure and Function of the Genome, GMS FC 714 Mechanisms of Cell Communication) (6 cr)
Physiology either Foundations in Biomedical Sciences V GMS FC 717 Physiology of Specialized Cells (2 cr) or ENG BE 716 Quantitative Physiology for Engineers) (4 cr)
Molecular & Translational Pharmacology GMS PM 701 (2 cr)
Molecular Neurobiology & Pharmacology GMS PM 702 (2 cr)
Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics I and II GMS PM 801, 802 (2 cr each)
Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences GMS PM 810 (2 cr)
Program electives — 6 credits minimum
GMS FC 703 Architecture and Dynamics of the Cell
GMS PM 820 Behavioral Pharmacology (2 cr)
GMS PM 832 Pharmacogenomics (2 cr)
GMS PM 881 Drug Discovery and Development (2 cr) (Pfizer scientists)
GMS FC 720 Statistical Reasoning for the Basic Biomedical Sciences (3 cr)
SPH BS 704 Introduction to Biostatistics (3 cr)
GMS AN 704 Experimental Design and Statistics (3 cr)
GMS MS 700 Elementary Biostatistics (2 cr)
GMS AN 810 Systems Neurobiology (4 cr)
GMS AN 811 Cognitive Neuroscience (4 cr)
GRS MA 665/666 An Introduction to Mathematical Models & Data Analysis in Neuroscience (2 cr)
GMS BY 760 Foundations of Biophysics and Structural Biology (4 cr)
GMS BY 771 Biophysics of Macromolecular Assemblies (4 cr)
GMS BY 772 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in Biology & Biochemistry (2 cr)
ENG BE 560 Biomolecular Architecture (4 cr)
ENG BE 561 DNA and Protein Sequence Analysis (4 cr)
ENG BE 565 Molecular Biotechnology (2 cr)
ENG BE 568 Systems Biology of Human Disease (4 cr)
ENG BE 726 Fundamentals of Biomaterials (4 cr)
ENG BE 727 Principles and Applications of Tissue Engineering (4 cr)
GMS BI 776 Gene Targeting in Transgenic Mice (2 cr)
GMS BI 777 Techniques in Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology (2 cr)
GMS MS 710 Transdisciplinary Addiction Science (2 cr)
GMS MS 783 Molecular Basis of Neurologic Disease (2 cr)
GRS NE 741 Neural systems: Functional circuit analysis (4 cr)
GRS NE 742 Neural systems: Cognition and Behavior (4 cr)
CAS CN 510 Principles and Methods of Cognitive and Neural Modeling (4 cr)
GMS MM 703 Cancer Biology and Genetics (2 cr)
GMS MM 710 Molecules to Molecular Therapeutics (4 cr)
GMS FC 715 Translational Genetics and Genomics (3 cr)
Seminar Courses (2 credits)
GMS PM 810 Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences (2 cr)
ENG BE 790 Biomedical Engineering Seminar (no cr)
GMS BY 871, 872 Biophysics Seminar (2 cr)
Laboratory Rotations-4 credits
GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology (2 cr; two semesters required in the first year; this is a laboratory rotation course and students may elect to complete additional laboratory rotations during the spring and summer of the first year)
During the first year, predoctoral trainees register for two semesters of GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology, in which they complete three laboratory rotations of seven weeks each. Students choose rotation mentors from the participating faculty members of the Program, independent of department affiliation. This rotation experience provides exposure to a variety of experimental approaches to the study of pharmacology. Trainees are encouraged to select rotations in laboratories that approach problems from different perspectives, in keeping with the fundamental goal of providing them a broad and more complete understanding of research strategies that have been developed to address questions of pharmacological importance. Rotations are designed to be a teaching instrument and students are encouraged to obtain publication quality data. Each student submits a paper written in the style of a research manuscript after each rotation that summarizes his or her research experience. At the end of each semester, there is an additional course meeting at which students will deliver presentations of their rotation experiences. Students receive a grade of Pass or Fail based upon their performance in research rotations and the grading of their written reports. The course manager reviews papers, provides evaluations to students, and maintains feedback to the faculty.
The Biomolecular Pharmacology seminar program has been expanded through support provided by institutional sources, the endowed Sterling Drug Visiting Professorship, and an award from the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation. All students are required to attend pharmacology seminars. In addition, students register for at least one semester of Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences. In this course, the guest lecturer attends student presentations of research paper(s) related to the lecturer’s research. Discussion includes consideration of strategies for enhancing the rigor of scientific research and the reproducibility of experimental observations. This course has proved to be highly successful in providing students with the essential background to the seminar speaker’s work and thereby preparing the students to participate actively in the department seminar.
At the end of the second year, each student takes a qualifying examination offered by his/her department of entry, which includes both written and oral components. For students entering through the Department of Pharmacology, the qualifying examination is administered by a committee of three faculty members selected by the student in consultation with his/her advisor. The composition of the Qualifying Examination Committee is reviewed and approved by the Program Director and emphasis is placed upon the representation of faculty from other participating departments. In preparation for the qualifying examination, students participate in five workshops on the structure, design, and writing of research grant proposals. These workshops familiarize students with the major sections required for generating research proposals. Students gain experience in writing rationales and aims for grant proposals and insights into logical approaches that facilitate the design and writing of cogent research plans. The workshops also address the critical issues of experimental rigor and reproducibility and application of biostatistics to the design of laboratory experiments. Students develop proposal synopses with the student/professor audiences acting as a study section to provide feedback.
The written component of the examination is in the form of a research proposal in the form of a predoctoral NIH fellowship application on a topic selected by the student. After passing the written examination, the student undergoes an oral examination by his/her Qualifying Examination Committee designed to test the student’s ability to integrate information and reason experimentally. Click here to learn more about the qualifying examination.
Prior to the selection of a research mentor, student progress is monitored by the Program Director, who serves as First-year Advisor for entering students, and by the Course Manager of the laboratory rotations course. The Graduate Education Committee reviews the progress of each student after the completion of each semester. In the Fall of the third year, a Dissertation Advisory Committee is constituted for each student, which continues to meet every semester (or more frequently if necessary) through the remainder of the student’s graduate studies. At its first meeting, the Committee advises the student on the final preparation of the qualifying examination proposal for NIH submission. At the end of the third year, each student presents a Progress Report on his/her research to the Department of Pharmacology. Students are expected to have submitted a first-author publication at this point in training. Upon completion of the dissertation, the pre-defense meeting of the Dissertation Defense Committee (which will normally be the Dissertation Advisory Committee plus one or more outside members) will verify that the student is prepared to proceed to the dissertation defense. At the defense, the student presents his/her work in a Departmental Seminar and then meets with the Dissertation Defense Committee to defend his/her dissertation.
Each faculty member meets regularly with trainees to discuss ongoing projects in the context of the research literature. At these meetings trainees give informal presentations of their current research and discuss results of recent papers from the literature. This forum also gives trainees the opportunity to discuss with faculty issues related to the training, as well as suggestions for improvement in the program.
Students present their research in the second or third year in the context of the Student Seminar Series scheduled at the end of each semester for the Biomolecular Pharmacology Program and then with a lengthier and more formal seminar as a Progress Report at least one year before graduation. Trainees are also expected to present their research findings at national research meetings. Although graduate students tend to prefer the poster mode of presentation at meetings, all trainees are encouraged to give at least one slide presentation at a national meeting. They are also encouraged to present research findings at regional and local meetings. The Pharmacology Department supports these activities by providing a travel allowance to students who are the first author on an abstract at a national meeting. Students selected for appointment to the Training Grant utilize the travel funds to help support attendance at regional and national meetings. Trainees also present their work more informally at the student-run Graduate Student Forum of the Biomolecular Pharmacology Program.
A major innovation in 1995 was the establishment of the Henry I. Russek Student Achievement Day and Awards Program, organized by Shelley Russek, Ph.D., Professor of Pharmacology. One student from each basic science department and the degree-granting program is selected to receive a $2,000 award that acknowledges their dedication and research accomplishments. Prior to the awards ceremony each award winner presents their results in a slide format. Each year about 100 Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. students have participated in the day by presenting posters and supporting their fellow students. All students in the training program participate in this event.
Students also are encouraged to participate in the Boston University Graduate Research Day, a university-wide meeting with a poster presentation that is open to all graduate students. It is held annually at the George Sherman Union on the Charles River Campus with awards for students based on the excellence of their abstracts and poster presentations.
Individuals with baccalaureate degrees who meet the requirements of the participating departments are considered for acceptance into the predoctoral program. Training grant support is only allocated to applicants who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
The Graduate Education Committee recommends to the Program Director the students to be supported by the training grant. Students are eligible for funding for the second and third years of their Ph.D. training. Candidates include students accepted to Ph.D. programs in Pharmacology, Graduate Program for Neuroscience, Physiology and Biophysics, Biomedical Engineering, Molecular Medicine, and M.D./Ph.D. students enrolled at Boston University. The latter are eligible to receive a stipend only during their Ph.D. training period, which is normally between the second and third years of medical training.
The following criteria are used to prioritize nominees and select students for training grant support:
(1) Highest priority is assigned to students who identify pharmacology as their major field of interest by having applied and been accepted into graduate training through the Biomolecular Pharmacology Program. Students who enter through Graduate Program for Neuroscience, Physiology and Biophysics, Biomedical Engineering and Molecular Medicine and who exhibit a strong interest in pharmacology are eligible. Students from underrepresented groups in science are identified and given careful consideration.
(2) The caliber and interests of the candidate are important considerations. Highest priority is assigned to students with the strongest academic record, including undergraduate and graduate grade point average, letters of recommendation, previous research experience, strong evaluations from laboratory rotation mentors, interest in study of pharmacology at the molecular or integrative level, and desire to capitalize on the resources of the interdisciplinary components of the program.
Special attention is devoted to equitable distribution of students supported by the training grant among the eligible participating faculty and the availability of resources for student support by the research advisor.
Students supported by the training grant in their initial years of Ph.D. study are expected to satisfy the requirements of the program and will be identified as trainees in Biomolecular Pharmacology throughout the duration of their graduate training regardless of sources of support in terminal years.
Each student selects a faculty member as advisor for supervision of research training at the end of the laboratory rotations. Until a dissertation advisor is selected, the Program Director serves as advisor for new students with substantial advising from the Directors of the Laboratory Rotations course and the Chair of the Graduate Education Committee. During the first year, students should familiarize themselves with research projects throughout the department and program.
Formal training on scientific integrity and issues of ethical principles in research is a required component of the curriculum. The training program at BU entails online instruction and four workshops each year devoted to issues in the responsible conduct of research. The Program in Responsible Conduct of Research is organized by the RCR Education Advisory Committee and implemented through the Boston University and Boston Medical Center Office of Research Compliance. To a very large degree, the topics addressed by this program match those identified by Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, the American Association of Medical Colleges and the National Institutes of Health. This program, which was instituted in 1991, has covered a wide range of issues concerning the responsible conduct of research including, but not limited to, data acquisition, management, sharing and ownership, mentor/trainee responsibilities, publication practices and responsible authorship, peer review, collaborations, human subjects, laboratory animals, research misconduct and conflict of interest. The series is offered periodically throughout the academic year to provide an ongoing dynamic forum for the exchange of ideas.
An important feature of the Ph.D. program is the development of professional skills of each student and individualized planning of a career path. Students are expected to attend the monthly Professional Development Events sponsored by Graduate Medical Sciences through its NIH-supported BEST Award. The topics and PowerPoint presentations of these events are available by clicking here. Students are also expected to use the AAAS-sponsored career-planning tool, myIDP, as the individual development plan at myIDP Science Careers. Students create a myIDP account early in the program, complete their first IDP shortly after the Ph.D. qualifying exam, and refer to this tool more intensively after their progress report seminar when post-graduation planning ensues in earnest.
Most functions of the departmental graduate program are managed by a committee of five faculty members and two graduate students. The graduate student representative is selected every September by the students themselves. The committee meets regularly to review matters that relate directly to the program as it is described above and to make recommendations to the Department Chair. When the agenda of a meeting specifically includes discussions of individual students, the graduate student representative will be excused from the entire meeting or portions of the meeting. The department academic manager has available a list of the current membership and chair of this committee. It is recommended that all new students receive a copy of this list.
The graduate program in pharmacology is described in the Bulletin of Graduate Medical Sciences and more fully in “Graduate Program in Pharmacology: Policies and Procedures”.
Please click here to see a list of the Training Program Faculty and their research interests.
The procedures for admission to the graduate program in Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics are described through the Graduate Medical Sciences admissions page. Applicants must submit the online application form that includes a statement of purpose. Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis once complete. Students are encouraged to arrange for submission of official transcripts as well as two letters of recommendation well in advance of the due date of December 1, which is when the application portal will close. GRE scores are not required for application to the graduate program and the absence of such scores will not adversely affect consideration of any applicant. However, students may submit GRE scores at their sole discretion. Students often ask about the criteria for admission. In addition to strong performance in academic coursework, most successful applicants will provide evidence of prior laboratory research experience and strong rationale for their decision to apply for predoctoral training at the NIGMS Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology at Boston University. Applications are reviewed by the Admissions Committee for the Department, which forwards recommendations to the Graduate Education Committee and Department Chair. Invitations to visit and meet students, faculty and staff will be extended to those who appear to be a good match for the unique aspects of our training program. A personal interview is required for applicants to the Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. programs, and applicants to the M.A. program are also encouraged to visit. Applicants are encouraged to carefully review the research interests of program faculty prior to submitting their applications and indicate which research areas of emphasis and faculty members they would like to meet in person. Following interviews, applicants will be notified of admissions decisions by the Department Chair and the Associate Provost of Graduate Medical Sciences.