Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular, and Biomedical Studies
The Office of Graduate Affairs (OGA) holds a series of orientation events to acclimatize first-year students to the campus and the city, including an overnight camping and hiking trip, which gives the incoming students a bonding experience across all the biomedical PhD programs. Orientation events include a mini-course that explains how to establish the framework for an experimental project, how to set up a system and design experiments within that system, and how to determine and use the correct set of controls. The course also covers an introduction to rigor and reproducibility in experimentation that is necessary for all the students.
Students also get mandatory training in laboratory safety, an orientation on sexual violence and response, as well as discrimination, harassment, and gender-based misconduct policy. Finally, as part of their orientation session, the students will be given a lecture by the CMBS program codirector on Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), where they will also receive the publication "On Being a Scientist," as well as Columbia University's institutional RCR policy. The CMBS program also sponsors an orientation lunch with the program directors. During this orientation meeting, we discuss what their time in the graduate program will be like, including course requirements, laboratory rotations, qualifying examinations, student seminars, and any other requirements they might have during their tenure as graduate students. The program directors subsequently meet individually with each student to discuss their own particular training program, as well as their rotation choices.
The most important information that the students must have for rotation selection is the faculty research interests. Many departments offer a Faculty Research Seminar for first year students in the fall, in which faculty present 15-20 minute talks on their research and CMBS students are invited to attend. The students in the CMBS program are also given the opportunity to attend one of the departmental retreats that are held in the beginning of the year. We also invite incoming students to the CMBS program retreat the summer before they start. However, given the large number of faculty and areas of research that the students can choose from, the individual orientation interviews with the program directors are very important to help guide the students to appropriate laboratories. Students are required to do at least two rotations, but generally do three rotations during their first year. The first rotation goes until winter break (third week in December), the second rotation goes from January to March and the third rotation from April to June. Occasionally it is necessary for a student to do a fourth rotation, although we do not encourage this possibility.
The program directors provide extensive input on rotation selection. They also obtain written rotation evaluations from faculty mentors as soon as rotations are complete. Our trainees have generally not encountered any difficulties. However, in the event that trainees encounter complications with rotations, the Program Directors will meet with trainees and rotation mentors independently to discuss problems that arose and how they can be addressed.
- First year fall semester: Biochemistry, Cell & Molecular Biology I, and Molecular Genetics
- First year spring semester: Biochemistry, Cell & Molecular Biology II, and Statistics for Basic Scientists
- Second year spring semester: Responsible Conduct of Research (lecture and small-group sessions)
Besides required courses listed above, students in the CMBS program must take two electives and must maintain a B average. Electives are chosen depending on the student's research area and/or general interest. Students must receive permission from the program directors for their choice of electives. Since Columbia also offers many non-science courses to all the students, any student wishing to take such a course must receive permission from their mentor as well as the program directors. These courses do not count toward their electives.
In addition to course work, all students take part in the CMBS program seminar. Other journal and data clubs are topic-related and available to the CMBS program students.
During the first semester of their second year, students prepare for their qualifying examination. This examination is used as a formal evaluation of the student's potential as a candidate for the PhD degree. It is designed to assess the student's ability to develop a sophisticated, in-depth understanding of their thesis project and it also serves as a tool for identifying deficiencies in the students' background that could be remedied by further coursework or additional reading.
Students present a written research proposal on their thesis topic. The proposal is written in the format of an NIH fellowship and consists of a description of the background and significance of the topic, specific aims and research approaches to address the aims. Preliminary data, if available, can also be presented but given that the examination is given shortly after the trainee started their project, this is not necessary. The student along with their thesis advisor proposes three possible committee members who will serve as examiners. The program directors review the proposed committee members and if they approve, will select one of them as chair. After the student submits their proposal, an oral examination is scheduled. At this oral examination, the student presents a 'chalk talk' of their proposal and are examined on the proposal, as well as on any other topics that the student should have learned in their coursework.
Either in the summer of the second year or the fall of the third year, students must have their first meeting with their thesis committee. The thesis committee is typically the same as the qualifying examination committee, although occasionally one of the members might be replaced, especially if the student's research is going in a different direction. This committee provides scientific expertise related to the student's projects and monitors thesis research. For the first committee meeting, which is held either in the spring or summer of the second year, the student presents a short written report that contains the specific aims of their proposal and any progress they have made since the qualifying examination. The committee discusses with the student the progress to date and 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 the experimental design or priorities. The committee also decides when to have the next meeting, which can be either in three, six, or nine months, but no longer than one year. For these subsequent meetings, the student prepares a 1-2 page report outlining their progress on the previous aims and presents 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.
After the thesis committee gives its approval for the student to finish writing the thesis, the defense is scheduled. The final thesis committee consists of the mentor, three existing thesis committee members and one additional examiner. If the additional examiner is outside the university, they have to be approved by the Program and the Dissertation Office as a competent examiner. The thesis should be submitted to the committee two weeks before the scheduled defense. A public presentation is given immediately before the closed defense. At the time of the closed defense, the student may be asked to make additional revisions that will then need to be approved by the mentor and one other member of the committee (assigned at the time of the defense). On rare occasions, the student may be required to do additional experimental work, extensive thesis revisions or a second dissertation defense. Students are required to submit a first author paper before their defense.
The CMBS program students participate in the CMBS program student research seminar series. In this series, which is held every other Thursday evening, all third-, fourth-, and fifth-year students present their own research to the other students in the program. Attendance for the CMBS program students is mandatory and monitored by the presenting student. Two students present every other week and the presenting student’s mentor and/or thesis committee member are asked to attend. The student seminar 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 thesis defense or when they apply for a postdoctoral position.
The CMBS program has a biennial program retreat. The retreat was organized almost exclusively by CMBS trainees under the supervision of two junior faculty members. The retreat includes talks by students and a few junior faculty as well as research poster presentations. All students after their first year are expected to give a talk or present a poster. A keynote speaker is also chosen by the student and faculty organizers. Thus both the seminar series and the retreat give our students an excellent chance to present their work in front of a friendly, but diverse audience.
A new seminar for CMBS students is to discuss expanded career options. In addition to Individual Development Plans and lecture series associated with them, this seminar builds upon the successes of prior trainees and the rich resources within Columbia University. We will invite mid-career professionals who graduated from our programs to meet our students and discuss the route from their PhD to their professional careers. Specifically the course is designed to:
- Help students understand the challenge and satisfactions in each selected career pathway
- Identify the strengths and characteristics that are valued in each selected career pathway
- Demonstrate how PhD training in biomedical science would advance their career in the various pathways
Taken together, this information will be helpful for the students to make informative decisions about their own career paths and launch a successful career after graduation.