Structure of Program:

The Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular, Structural and Genetic Studies is an interdepartmental degree-granting program offering pre-doctoral training for students at the Columbia University Medical Center. This program also serves as the parent program for students who do not wish to select a particular track, thereby giving them more options in possible research mentors. This program was previously called the Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biophysical Studies and started out as the interdisciiplinary nature of biomedical research became more obvious and the need for interdepartmental core courses was perceived specifically to educate graduate students in the basics of biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics and cell biology. The Integrated Program was started in 1986; graduates of the Integrated Program are currently independent investigators at top-flight universities and research institutes. The Integrated Program presents students with a unique opportunity to obtain rigorous training in an individualized environment. The Integrated Program is composed of faculty from each of the basic science departments at the Medical Center and the Center for Computational Biology and Bioinformatics (C2B2). This program is also referred to as the Interdisciplinary Program, because of the kind of training it provides. There are currently over 100 faculty members in the program from the seven basic science departments. The faculty represents most of the basic scientists at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. There are currently ~90 students in this program, including ~20 MD-PhD students. We have enrolled on the average twelve students a year and 2-5 MD-PhD students join the Integrated Program each year. Some of our students have also competed successfully for fellowships prior to enrollment.

Curriculum:

During the first year, the students take four core courses, including a one-year sequence in Advanced Biochemistry and Eukaryotic Molecular Biology, a course in Microbial Molecular Genetics and a course in Cell Biology of Membranes and Organelles. Some of the students also opt to take Molecular Biophysics during their first year, although they can take this course as an elective in the second year as well. During the second year, students need to take a course in Responsible Conduct of Research. During either the second or subsequent years, the students need to take two additional electives that are dependent on the student's research interests. There are no particular requirements for the electives, although the student’s advisory committee may have specific recommendations. Note that students affiliated with the Computational Biology Program will have a modified sets of requirements (see C2B2 website).

A typical curriculum is shown below:
  • First Year

    • Fall Sememster:
      1. Laboratory Rotation 1
      2. Microbial Molecular Genetics
      3. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Eukaryotes, I
      4. Integrated Program Seminar
    • Spring Sememster:
      1. Laboratory Rotation 2
      2. Cellular Membranes and Organelles
      3. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Eukaryotes, II
      4. Integrated Program Seminar
    • Summer Semester:
      1. Laboratory Rotation 3

  • Second Year

    • Fall Sememster:
      1. Advanced Elective 1
      2. Dissertation Research
      3. Integrated Program Seminar
      4. Ph.D. Qualifying Exam
    • Spring Sememster:
      1. Advanced Elective 2
      2. Dissertation Research
      3. Integrated Program Seminar
      4. Responsible Conduct of Research and Related Policy Issues

  • Subsequent Years

    1. Dissertation Research
    2. Integrated Program Seminar
    3. Ph.D. Thesis Defense

Laboratory Rotations:

Students are required to do at least two rotations, but generally do three rotations during the first year in the program. The training faculty submits written evaluations of studentís progress in each rotation and indicates their willingness to take a student. These evaluations are part of the studentís permanent record. If after two rotations, the student has no possible laboratory where they can do their thesis work, we ask the student to discuss their final rotation in more detail with the director or the co-director of the program to make sure that this final rotation is a likely potential home for the student. Occasionally, it is necessary for a student to do a fourth rotation, but we strongly discourage this.

Probably the most important information that the students must have to decide on a rotation is the faculty research interests. Although a lot of information is available on this website, it is also important that the students get more direct information and therefore we schedule for our students to attend the departmental research talks that are given at the beginning of each term. Schedules for all these talks are given to the incoming students in their orientation packages. The students in the Integrated Program are also given the opportunity to attend one of the departmental retreats that are held in the beginning of the year.

Qualifying Examination:

At the end of the first year, the students read and prepare for their qualifying examination. This examination is used as a formal evaluation of the studentís potential as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree. It is designed to assess the studentís ability to develop a sophisticated, in-depth understanding of current biological problems and his/her ability to identify important questions and design experiments to test them. It also serves as a tool for identifying deficiencies in the studentsí background that could be remedied by further coursework or additional reading. Students are asked to select two topics (one can be their thesis topic) and mentors to advise them on each topic. A third examiner is assigned by the program and serves as chair of the committee. This examiner is usually someone, who is knowledgeable about at least one of the topics and has previously been involved in other qualifying examinations. The student writes an essay on each topic, describing the background of the topic and suggesting experiments to further understanding on the topic. The mentors guide the studentís reading and thinking on the topic and also goes over early drafts of their written proposals. The proposals provide the framework for the qualifying oral examination, in which the students are examined on the chosen topic and on general knowledge. The students present their topics without notes or visual aids. Although most of the students perform well on the exam, some students are given conditional passes and are asked to take additional coursework.

Student Seminars:

All the Integrated Program students participate in a research seminar series. In this series, which is held once a week, the students present their own research to the other students in the program. Attendance for the Integrated Program students is mandatory and a light meal is provided. No faculty members are allowed to attend and the presenting student passes an attendance sheet around. All the students in their fourth year and beyond are scheduled to speak during the year. This seminar serves a number of purposes: it gives the students in the program an idea about the projects that their fellow students are working on and it also gives the students an opportunity to practice a talk on their work before a critical, but friendly audience of their peers, before they have to give this talk either for their defense or when they apply for a post-doctoral position.

Dissertation:

Either in the spring or the summer of the second year, the students with the help of their research advisor choose their thesis committees. These committees will provide scientific expertise related to the students’ projects and they monitor the progress that the student makes during their research career. In general, we have found that monitoring by thesis committees is crucial to make sure that the students finish their research in a timely manner. We have set up certain rules for the student's thesis committee meetings, depending on their year in the program. For the first committee meeting, which is held either in the spring or summer of the second year, the students prepare the Specific Aims of the research they will do for the thesis. The committee discusses with the student the background of the thesis work, the priorities for the order in which the work will proceed, as well as the chosen design of experiments. It is possible that the committee may recommend changes to experimental design or priorities. The committee can also decide to have a meeting sooner than a year later. In any case, another meeting will be scheduled in the spring or summer of the third year of graduate school to assess the progress the students are making in their thesis work. For these meetings, the students prepare a short presentation of work accomplished during the year, detailing how it addresses previously proposed aims. The committee assesses the student’s progress on previous aims and apparent viability of the original plan. At the next annual meeting, the students prepare a 1-2 page report, outlining their progress on the previous aims and present their timetable for finishing their thesis work. The committee can and should recommend improvements to experimental strategies and fallback plans for difficult or risky experiments. At this point, more frequent meetings may be requested by the committee.

Financial Support:

All students will be supported during their graduate years with a stipend, tuition and fees. Students are encouraged to apply for fellowships.