Graduate Fields at Cornell University
Graduate education at Cornell University is organized by Fields - groups of faculty who share an area of common scientific interest and come together in the training of graduate students. The core of the Graduate Field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology (BMCB) is formed by 27 faculty members of the Department of Molecular Biology & Genetics and also by a specialized group of about 22 faculty with similar interests in a variety of other Departments, such as Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Plant Biology, Nutritional Sciences, Applied and Engineering Physics, Microbiology, Physics, Biomedical Sciences, Microbiology and Immunology, and Molecular Medicine. Since graduate students entering the program have the opportunity to work in the laboratories of any Field member, this provides a diverse, but related, set of research opportunities.
Hallmarks of the Graduate Field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology are its diversity and central position in the life sciences at Cornell University. The breadth of the program extends from genetic and cell biological analyses of fundamental processes, like mitosis and membrane trafficking, to understanding the intricacies of transcriptional regulation and DNA replication, to structural studies of macromolecules of biological importance. This diverse collection of faculty allows for productive interactions and collaborations across the entire spectrum represented by the Field. In addition, the Field is located intellectually at the center of scientific research at Cornell. Thus, research groups in the Field benefit from interactions with scientists in the more applied as well as the very basic sciences which flourish at Cornell. Together with facilities utilizing the latest technologies, this allows members of the Field to utilize contemporary sets of diverse technologies, for example in nanobiotechnology, genomic array studies, computational approaches as well as the latest structural and imaging techniques. The program is one of the largest graduate programs in the biological sciences at Cornell University and has enjoyed considerable and continuous support from the National Institutes of Health for over 30 years in the form of a Predoctoral Student Training Grant in Cellular and Molecular Biology.
Doctoral Program in the Field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology
The graduate program in the Field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology offers a Ph.D. degree only. The goal of our program is to educate and introduce the students to the fascination of this scientific area, as well as provide them with the tools necessary to succeed in it. To this end, we have assembled a flexible program that includes lecture and laboratory courses, teaching experiences, together with the opportunity to undertake forefront research with access to the latest technology and equipment. Most of the faculty are housed in new research buildings which also contain state-of-the-art facilities. The faculty take the challenge of graduate education enthusiastically, as this area of biology will be at the forefront as we enter the 21st century, a period which will see enormous growth in the biological sciences, especially in macromolecular and cell biology.
The program of study is flexible and is adjusted to the needs of individual students. What follows is a “typical” student's graduate career.
Getting Started. New students are formally introduced to the Field Faculty and their research in a series of short faculty talks early in the Fall semester for their first year. Each student chooses three laboratories for the sequence of research rotation projects that continues through the first year. Each rotation lasts approximately 8 weeks, and makes possible a truly informed choice of Ph.D. advisor and thesis project. This choice takes place at the end of the Spring semester. Students then join a lab where they conduct their thesis research.
Special Committees. The progress of each graduate student at Cornell is guided and supervised by his or her "Special Committee" which consists of the thesis research supervisor and two other faculty members representing the minor subjects chosen by the student. Each student puts together a Special Committee at the end of his or her first year. The Special Committee system offers great flexibility to the Ph.D. program since neither the Graduate School nor the Field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology demand a fixed course of study.
Courses. Our coursework is designed to give students a broad appreciation for modern molecular biosciences. In the Fall semester, most new graduate students take three lecture courses, “Protein Structure and Function,” “Biosynthesis of Macromolecules” and “Eukaryotic Cell Proliferation.” In addition, an “Advanced Biochemical Methods” laboratory during the first half of the Fall semester gives students hands-on experience with modern methods, and is followed by the first of the three laboratory rotation projects. The Spring semester emphasizes cell biology with two lecture courses, “The Nucleus” and “Advanced Cell Biology.” In addition to these courses, all first-year students participate in a seminar in which they read and present classic research papers covering a wide range of topics. In an informal setting and with the aid of faculty members, they then practice critically evaluating the papers. Also during the first year, most students take one or two additional lecture courses chosen in the area of the Ph.D. minor. Examples of minor subjects are: Development, Genetics, Immunology, Microbiology, Organic Chemistry, Physical Chemistry, and Virology.
In their second year, most students need take only one or two more courses to complete the Ph.D. minor requirement, having completed the core requirements in coursework for the Ph.D. major. In addition, students can choose to take one of the three six-lecture advanced topic mini-courses offered during every semester. In any four year period, about 20 different mini-courses will be taught, providing students and faculty alike the chance to keep abreast of timely and specialized topics.
Seminars. Throughout the academic year, well-known scientists give formal lectures on their work in the Friday Seminar Series. Students themselves also invite and entertain several of the seminar speakers. We also sponsor the prestigious Class of 1942 James B. Sumner Lecture Series, in honor of Cornell Biochemistry’s first Nobel Laureate and the Efraim Racker Seminar in honor of the many scientific contributions made by this former Field member. Numerous other regular seminar series will be of interest including those of Genetics and Development, Biophysics, Chemistry, Molecular Medicine, Neurobiology, and many more.
An important feature of graduate education in the Field of Biochemistry, Molecular and Cell Biology is the yearly presentation by each student of his/her own research results, starting in the second year of study. This seminar provides a unique education in the very form of communication most essential for a successful career in research.
Teaching. As part of the Ph.D. training program, and as a valuable contribution to our teaching effort, every graduate student participates as a Teaching Assistant at least one semester. Teaching assignments to a lab, lecture, or autotutorial course are based on student preference, with some faculty input. TA requirements are usually met during the second year of study.
Examinations. Graduate students are required to pass two sets of examinations. The “A” exam, or entrance to Ph.D. candidacy exam, must be taken before or during the 5th semester of study. This exam is based on the oral defense by the student in front of the Special committee of an original research proposal, written in the style of a grant proposal submitted to funding agencies such as the NIH or NSF. The subsequent thesis, or “B” exam, is in two parts. First, the student presents a portion of the thesis work in a seminar to interested students and faculty, including the Special Committee. Next, the student defends the written thesis before the Special Committee. By this time, students have accomplished solid and original research work, usually with several publications in major journals.
Financial Support. All Graduate students are provided full support, including tuition, as long as they are making satisfactory progress (academic, research and teaching). In addition, the Program provides Medical insurance for every student. This financial support comes from Cornell University Fellowships, outside fellowships (for example, from the National Science Foundation or Howard Hughes Medical Institute), from a National Institutes of Health Predoctoral Training Grant in Cellular and Molecular Biology, Graduate Research Assistantships and research assistantships funded by individual laboratories.
Diane Colf, Graduate Field Coordinator
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
107 Biotechnology Building
Ithaca, NY 14853