General BBS Information
BBS is an interdepartmental graduate training program in cellular and molecular biology. BBS faculty members are drawn from all of the basic science departments of Harvard Medical School –Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology (BCMP), Cell Biology, Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, Genetics, Microbiology and Immunobiology, Neurobiology and Systems Biology – and from many of Harvard’s affiliated teaching hospitals. BBS has also incorporated faculty from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) as part of its effort to build new initiatives in graduate training.
The BBS graduate research training is interdisciplinary, with a concentration in one or more of the following areas: biochemistry and proteomics, cell and molecular biology, computational biology, developmental biology, genetics and genomics, human biology and disease, immunobiology, microbial biology and pathogenesis, molecular neurosciences, physiology, pharmacology, regenerative biology and structural biology. The methods and experimental approaches used to address questions within these areas range from the techniques of molecular biology, protein chemistry, cell biology and biophysics to those of molecular and developmental genetics. A breakdown of the areas of research is provided in the faculty section of the website.
In addition, the Harvard community has a number of programs that are aimed at bringing students and researchers together from different departments and/or institutions to share their work on topics of mutual interest. For example, all of the cancer researchers from the Harvard community have united under one research organization, the Dana Farber Harvard Cancer Center. The participating institutions include Beth Israel/Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham & Women's Hospital, Children's Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital. Similarly, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) draws together a community of scientists, medical practitioners, educators, ethicists, and business and legal professionals from 19 different Harvard-associated institutions to address both the scientific and societal issues related to stem cell research. There are also a number of informal groups that meet several times a year, again including individuals from different departments and/or institutions. Examples include the Virology Dinner Club, the Membrane Biology Club, and the Cell Cycle Club.
About Life Science Graduate Programs at Harvard Medical School
Life Science graduate education at Harvard Medical School (HMS) is administered and supported by the Division of Medical Sciences (DMS). DMS administers academic courses and student affairs for HMS graduate programs. Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) is one of four graduate programs supported by DMS. BBS is one of twelve life science graduate programs in the Harvard Integrated Life Science (HILS) consortium sponsored by the Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). HILS provides coordination between the Harvard graduate programs in Life Sciences, and enables the access of students to a wide variety of faculty research. GSAS provides administrative support for all graduate students, from affiliation to registration and health insurance.
Each entering student is assigned a program advisor who provides the majority of advice on academic and non-academic issues in years 1 and 2. Advisors are assigned by matching the research interest of the student with that of a faculty member . Each program advisor has 3 or 4 advisees per incoming class and remains the advisor for each student as he/she progresses through the program. They meet with their advisees individually when students first arrive and at the beginning of each semester through year 2.
Quality mentorship and research advising are the cornerstones of effective graduate training. BBS offers a wide variety of potential thesis advisors in many different areas of interest, model systems and technical approaches. BBS faculty include many leaders in their respective fields, yet the culture of the BBS program makes these prominent scientists highly accessible and dedicated to excellence in research training. In addition to a primary thesis advisor, each BBS student will select three faculty members to serve as a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC). Each student’s DAC meets at regular intervals to provide creative and practical feedback for the student and thesis advisor.
The BBS graduate course curriculum is designed to provide a foundation broad enough and deep enough to support thesis research across a wide spectrum of cutting edge problems in biology. Our curriculum consists of core courses as well as specialized courses organized in various formats that focus on different topics and/or methodologies relevant to modern biology. The core courses include one critical reading course and four foundational courses that cover genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry and cell biology. The only specific course required is a critical reading course (BBS230) held during the fall semester of year 1. We have also designed a proposal writing course (BBS 330) held in fall semester of year 2 for all second year students. Fulfillment of the remaining course requirements can be satisfied from a wide variety of choices, including the core courses, upper level reading courses and advanced didactic courses. BBS students are required to take a total of eight full semester course credits.
Students can choose to train in the disciplines represented by our four founding departments (BCMP, Cell Biology, Genetics, Microbiology and Immunobiology) or in two new interdepartmental programs that have recently been created: Leder Human Biology and Translational Medicine (LHB) and Developmental and Regenerative Biology (DRB). Some specialized courses are required for students in the LHB or DRB programs. Additional advanced courses in a variety of research topics are offered through many Harvard departments and programs.
Timeline of Graduate Studies
Students in the BBS program typically complete the majority of their courses in the first year of study. Core courses are designed for the first graduate (G1) year. During this first year, students will rotate in order to declare a specific thesis laboratory by the end of the G1 year. In the second graduate (G2) year, students will (i) begin work on a thesis project, (ii) complete their Preliminary Qualifying Examination in one of three exam periods, and then (iii) advance to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Within several months of advancing to candidacy, each student will select and convene their Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC). The DAC will review the student’s research progress on a regular basis, evaluate the proposed outline of the dissertation, and provide approval to begin the final stage of dissertation preparation and defense. A separate committee is assembled to preside over the final defense examination. The current average time to completion from entry to Ph.D. degree is 5.5 years, however, BBS has recently undertaken a series of new policies and advising guidelines in order to reduce this timeline.
Laboratory rotations allow students the opportunity to explore important questions asked in different fields and the many approaches that are used to address these questions. Rotations also allow students to get a feel for the research happening in a lab, a sense of the lab community, and help to determine if the environment would be suitable for their dissertation research. Students are required to undertake 2 laboratory rotations but we strongly recommend 3 rotations.
Gaining some experience with teaching is required in the BBS program. Each student must fulfill one semester (60 hours, including preparation time) as a non-paid teaching assistant. When possible, the student should be a teaching assistant (TA) in a BBS or other HMS graduate course.
BBS has also established a Community Education Initiative, which provides teaching opportunities for BBS students in secondary school and after-school programs in the Boston area. Many students volunteer in the community schools and can apply to fulfill their teaching requirement (60 hours, including preparation time) in this way.
Preliminary Qualify Examination (PQE)
All BBS Students are required to take a qualifying examination in their second year. The primary goal of the Preliminary Qualifying Examination (PQE) is to ensure that you have achieved a high standard of scientific scholarship and skills that are critical for successful completion of your Ph.D. thesis and beyond. In addition to assessing your foundation in genetics, molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry, the PQE will test your ability to:
- Develop a set of original, testable hypotheses
- Prepare a compelling research plan to test these hypotheses
- Orally explain and defend these hypotheses and your research plan
- Critically analyze and interpret data
Dissertation Advisory Committee Meetings (DAC)
After passing the Preliminary Qualifying Examination a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) of at least three members (not including the Dissertation Advisor) will be selected by student and their mentor.
The role of the DAC is to assist the student in defining the dissertation project, review scientific progress, offer critical evaluation, suggesting extension or modification of objectives, arbitrate differences of opinion between the student and the advisor if and when they arise, and decide when the work accomplished constitutes a dissertation. Our hope is that the committee will help students in the early stages to get their research off to a good start, and that they will be a resource for students at any point during their graduate career.
Extracurricular activities are considered part of the informal training of all students in the Program and student participation is strongly encouraged.
For first year students to become acquainted with faculty there is a weekly BBS Faculty Seminar Series. New BBS faculty members are invited to give a seminar, in an informal setting, with food provided for students and the speaker.
Also for first year students, there is a weekly BBS Rotation Club, where lunch is provided. Two to three students will give a 15 - 20 minute presentation on their lab rotations, sharing the techniques they have learned, the data they have acquired and the scope of the project. Rotation Club is held from September through December.
All current BBS students are invited to attend the BBS Student Retreat. The schedule for the weekend will be planned by students and will include student talks, a poster session, a guest speaker, topical discussion groups, and social gatherings.
At the beginning of each academic year, there will be a series of Poster Sessions. All BBS faculty and students are invited to participate. The poster sessions are an excellent way for new students to meet BBS faculty and for faculty and current students to learn what is going on in the program. Many students learn about possible rotations through these sessions.
All students are welcome to participate in the Harvard Biomedical Graduate Student Organization (BGSO) sponsored events and activities. Some of the events are the following: The Mountain Club plans outings such as ski trips, hiking and bike rides throughout the year. Some other BGSO activities include the Graduate Student Council and Graduate Student Course Evaluation Committee.