Graduate School Life

Evolution of Graduate Education at P&S


By Richard B. Robinson, Ph.D.
Associate Dean for Graduate Affairs

The doctoral programs at P&S have undergone continual change since the establishment of the first program, in microbiology, in 1893. To a large extent the changes mirror the changing nature of biomedical research. Initially, change meant expansion of doctoral education through the addition of new programs, with each based in a traditional medical school department, such as physiology or biochemistry.
   A new, less rigidly structured pattern began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century, represented initially at Columbia with the formation in 1958 of the graduate program in nutrition within the Institute of Human Nutrition, the first P&S Ph.D. program not based on a formal departmental structure. More recently, as biomedical research has become more interdisciplinary, we recognized the need to provide graduate education that cut across multiple disciplines. This was addressed in part by faculty from one department joining another department’s training faculty, but also by the creation of new programs outside the department structure.
   At P&S this took the form of the Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biophysical Studies (established in1987) and the Program in Neurobiology and Behavior (established in 1996).
   In early 2007 Lee Goldman, M.D., executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences and dean of the faculties of health sciences and medicine, asked us to re-examine the existing doctoral educational structure. The goal: to ensure a uniform admission standard across all programs and to create an operational structure that further encouraged interaction and collaboration, both in teaching and research.
   The initial changes, affecting admissions, were implemented in the fall of 2007. Initial curriculum changes related to the reorganization go into effect this fall as part of a two-year phase-in plan. Additional changes and refinements are ongoing.
   In examining our existing programs, we realized that subsets of programs had common interests and needs, particularly with regard to core curriculum requirements, that provided the potential for synergistic cooperation. We have therefore created two umbrella structures which, while not degree-granting programs themselves, provide a framework for the programs under them to interact and work together. This creates a cohort of students within each umbrella that, as they take classes together and interact in other ways, should begin to think of themselves as true classmates. This in turn will benefit recruiting for new students by creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. As part of this consolidation, individual program names have been updated to accurately reflect the current focus of each program (for details: gsas.cumc.columbia.edu/).
   One umbrella emphasizes cellular and molecular biology and includes programs in biochemistry and molecular biophysics; cell biology; genetics and development; and microbiology, immunology, and infection. The other umbrella emphasizes translational biology and contains programs in cellular physiology and biophysics; nutritional and metabolic biology; pathobiology and molecular medicine; and pharmacology and molecular signaling.
   The graduate programs remaining outside these umbrellas are biomedical informatics; the integrated program in cellular, molecular, and biomedical studies; and neurobiology and behavior.
   The two umbrella groups worked together in Spring 2008 to coordinate interviews of applicants and to agree on offers of admission. We also added an admissions committee, with representatives from each of the reorganized programs, to review and approve all recommendations for admission to assure that the same high standard was applied uniformly across all programs.
   Curriculum changes implemented this fall include a complete revamping of the two-semester course in biochemistry and molecular biology, including the incorporation of aspects of cell biology that were previously covered by the course in cell, membranes, and organelles. The new course is known as “Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology” and will be a required course for all students in both umbrellas. We also have expanded “Microbial Molecular Biology” to include non-microbial, but very important genetic organisms, such as Drosophila, C. elegans, and mice. This course is known as “Molecular Genetics” and will be required of all students in the cell and molecular group. In addition, a new course is currently under development called “Mechanisms of Human Disease” that will be required of all students in the translational group. It will focus on a number of human diseases that involve different organ systems and will expose students to a complete understanding of these diseases, encompassing pathobiological characteristics, physiological basis, and underlying molecular mechanisms. The revision of the core courses will eliminate some of the redundancy in our teaching efforts while further fostering cohesiveness among the programs within each umbrella.
   The one constant in biomedical graduate education is the absence of constancy. To remain on the cutting edge of research and education, doctoral programs must repeatedly reassess and reinvent themselves, adapting to the advancing state of knowledge and resulting changes in priorities. The revisions in our organizational structure and curriculum are simply another stage in a process that has been ongoing since the formation of the first doctoral program at P&S more than 100 years ago.

Graduate Students Awards, Fellowships, Honors, 2007–2008
(student name in italics; mentors noted by parentheses)

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research: Ellen J. Ezratty, “Regulation of Microtubule-Induced Focal Adhesion Disassembly” (Gregg Gundersen); Arun P. Wiita, “Probing Chemistry and Catalysis in Single Protein Molecules with Mechanical Force” (Julio Fernandez)

Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics: Barbara Noro, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement in Biochemistry (Richard Mann)

Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Studies: Belle Chang, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “Regulation of PIP2 Metabolism in Nerve Terminals” (Gilbert Di Paolo); Barry Fine, Dean’s Day Steiner Award for Research, “Analysis of PTEN Function and Regulation” (Ramon Parsons); Hasina Outtz, NIH-NHLBI Fellowship, “The Connection between Notch Signaling and VEGFR1 in Angiogenesis” (Jan Kitajewski); Jin-Wu Tsai, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement in Anatomy and Cell Biology (Richard Vallee)

Genetics and Development: Jacqueline H. Barlow, Samuel W. Rover & Lewis Rover Award for Outstanding Achievement in Genetics and Development (Rodney Rothstein); Katherine Lelli, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “An in vivo Structure-function Analysis of Exd, the Drosophila Homolog of the Mammalian Proto-oncogene Pbx” (Richard Mann)

Microbiology, Immunology and Infection: Teresita Arenzana, Richard C. Parker Graduate Student Award (Boris Reizis)

Neurobiology and Behavior: Mohsin Ahmed, Dean’s Day Steiner Award for Research, “Low Efficacy of Presynaptic Function at Perforant Path Inputs to Hippocampal CA1 Pyramidal Neurons is Enhanced by Long-term
Neurobiology and Behavior:
Graduate dean Richard Robinson with 2008 Dean’s Award recipients Arun P. Wiita and Ellen J. Ezratty at commencement
Potentiation” (Steven Siegelbaum); Irene Ballagh, International Fulbright Science and Technology Award; Elaine Budreck, NIH-NIMH Fellowship, “Distinct Function of the Neuroligin 3 Postsynaptic Adhesion Complex” (Peter Scheiffele); Andrew Fink, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “The Modulation of Sensory Input by Neuronal Circuits” (Thomas Jessell); Angela Gee, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “The Activity of V4 in Free Viewing Visual Search” (Michael Goldberg); William Hinkle, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, “Impact of Background Music on Cognitive Task Performance: An fMRI Study on the Impact of Background Music Types on Word-pair Recall and Arithmetic Computation after Controlling for Personality Traits and Effects of Arousal”; Catherine Jensen, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Maternal Care and Oxytocin Regulation of Dopamanergic Neurons in the VTA”; Benjamin Matthews, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “Dscam Diversity and Circuit Formation in the Drosophila Nervous System” (Wesley Grueber); Sara Morrison, NIH-NIMH Fellowship, “Neural Mechanisms Underlying Simple and Complex Reinforcement Learning” (Daniel Salzman); Christopher Ortiz, NIH-NIDCD Fellowship, “Analysis of Functional Diversity in the Chemosensory System of C. elegans” (Oliver Hobert); Rebecca Schoer, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention, “Neural Representations of Relative Value in the Orbitofrontal Cortex and Amygdala” (Daniel Salzman); Carl Schoonover, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, “Determining the Synaptic Anatomy of the Thalamocortical Synapse”; Yevgeniy Sirotin, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “Physiology of Contour Integration” (Aniruddha Das); Gregory Wayne, NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Award, “Neurobiology and the Emergence of Cooperation”

Nutritional and Metabolic Biology: Stephanie Padilla, NIH-NIDDK Fellowship, “Effects of Maternal Insulin Resistance on Hypothalamic Feeding Circuit in Progeny” (Rudy Leibel)

Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine: Li-Chun Cheng, Brunie Prize in Neural Stem Cell Research (Fiona Doetsch); Susan White, NIH-NINDS Fellowship, “Mechanism of Spastin-mediated Microtubule Severing” (Brett Lauring)

Pharmacology and Molecular Signaling: Erin Harleton, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Division for Cardiovascular Pharmacology Graduate Student Best Abstract Award, “Inhibitory Phosphorylation of TASK-1 is Associated with Atrial Fibrillation” (Steven Feinmark/Richard Robinson)



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