UCSF wins HHMI award for interdisciplinary graduate education

By Wallace Ravven

David Agard, PhD -----

UCSF’s Integrated Program in Complex Biological Systems has been awarded a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to initiate fundamental changes in the way PhD scientists are trained.

As biomedical science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary - relying increasingly on the physical and computational sciences—educators are looking for new ways to train tomorrow’s biomedical investigators to work effectively across disciplinary lines.

UCSF is among 10 universities selected to help lead the way, each receiving a $1 million grant from HHMI. The 10 were selected from among 132 institutions applying for the support.
The three-year grants will help faculty develop innovative graduate education programs to produce a cadre of scientists with the knowledge and skills to conduct research at the interface between the biomedical, physical, and computational sciences.

Director of the new UCSF program is David Agard, PhD, professor of biochemistry and scientific director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, known as QB3, on the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

“I firmly believe that we are witnessing the beginnings of a startling convergence of biology with the physical, mathematical and engineering sciences,” Agard said. “This convergence is critical for understanding the extraordinary complexity of cellular function as well as the processes whereby the behavior of individual cells is coordinated to form tissues and organisms. Applying the tools of the physical sciences and engineering to tackle complex biological problems will enable a highly sophisticated technology devoted to the engineering of biological materials and systems.”

A fundamental challenge, Agard said, is bringing such disparate approaches to bear on a biological problem. One reason that UCSF has done so well has been its long history and established culture of powerful collaborations. However, a key to this success is training young scientists to be simultaneously conversant in the languages of biology, math, physics and engineering.

“Because the challenges are as much sociological as they are didactic,” he added, QB3 scientists have begun developing an entirely new graduate training program—the integrative program in Complex Biological Systems.”

Co-directors of the new program are Joe DeRisi, PhD, professor of biochemistry, QB3 faculty affiliate and an HHMI investigator at UCSF; and Sarah Nelson, PhD, professor of radiology and director of the Surbeck Laboratory of Advanced Imaging at QB3.

The novel approaches in the interdisciplinary UCSF graduate program include:

*  Offering two-week “bootcamps” in mathematics and other fields to provide basic competency and breadth at the onset of the formal curriculum.

*  Fostering collaboration between students of different backgrounds through intense team challenges.

*  Recruiting 10 new quantitative faculty, half whom will be theorists, overseen by the program faculty.

*  Creating a new curriculum with five new core courses focusing on modeling of complex systems and observing molecular and cellular behavior.

*  Diversifying the lab experience to require that all students do at least three one-quarter rotations in wet and dry labs.

The programs funded by the new HHMI initiative are diverse, ranging from nanotechnology for biology and medicine at Johns Hopkins University to training in clinical imaging and informational sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Other universities selected in California are UC Irvine and UC San Diego.

HHMI is partnering with the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering—one of the National Institutes of Health—to ensure sustaining support as well as start-up funds for the new programs.

UCSF is a leading university that consistently defines health care worldwide by conducting advanced biomedical research, educating graduate students in the life sciences, and providing complex patient care.