Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics

PhD Training Program

NIGMS Training Grant/Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology

The program in Biomolecular Pharmacology at Boston University School of Medicine was honored in July 1997 with the award of a National Institute of General Medical Sciences T32 Instructional Training Grant (Principal Investigator, David H. Farb, PhD), one of only two such pharmacology training grants in the New England area. In the 15-plus years since its inception, this University-wide program has flourished, providing a unique interdisciplinary and interdepartmental learning environment for doctoral students.

Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology

Pharmacology has historically been an interdisciplinary field, positioned at the point of convergence of physiology, biochemistry, organic chemistry, behavioral science, and medicine. The pharmacology of this century will bring together an even wider range of disciplines, combining traditional aspects of pharmacology with novel approaches drawn from other disciplines, such as biophysics, biomedical engineering, and molecular genetics.

The pre-doctoral training program in Biomolecular Pharmacology is based on a training partnership among faculty in the Departments of Pharmacology, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Biology, Biochemistry, Physiology & Biophysics, Chemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine, and the Graduate Program in Neurosciences. The curriculum formalizes interdisciplinary pre-doctoral training in molecular pharmacology. Students receive formal training in the principles of molecular pharmacology, as well as in molecular genetic, biophysical, and structural approaches to the study of drug-receptor interactions. A major benefit of the program is to expand opportunities for students to carry out research in these areas.

Oversight and coordination is provided by a faculty Graduate Education Committee. The structure of the program catalyzes continued and expanded collaborations among the participating faculty, and fosters interactions among students and faculty of the participating components. This program produces scientists who have an understanding of and firsthand experience of a broad range of technologies at the cutting edge of research in molecular pharmacology. The excellence of our training program has been recognized nationally by the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences in the form of funding for our interdepartmental University-wide Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology.

PhD Curriculum

The goal of this program is to produce scientists with an understanding of, and first-hand experience with, the major questions and technologies on the cutting edge of molecular pharmacology. The average tenure of PhD candidates in the Biomolecular Pharmacology training program is five years. The major focus of the training program is the development of expertise in basic research. The first two years of the program emphasize formal coursework designed to build understanding of the fundamental principles and methodology of pharmacology. In addition, upon matriculation students begin a sequence of four required laboratory rotations. The laboratory rotations provide students with the opportunity to investigate potential areas for dissertation research while enhancing the breadth of their training.

During the last three years in the program, the primary emphasis is on dissertation research. Students are also required to complete advanced-level coursework, report on their dissertation research, and participate in activities consistent with their development as future scientists. Details of these activities are provided below.

Since the inception of this training program, most students have entered through the Department of Pharmacology. Students are also accepted into the program through other departments and programs such as the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Graduate Program in Neurosciences. Each of these PhD programs requires 64 credit hours for completion plus a qualifying examination and a successful oral dissertation defense. Each of the programs has specific requirements, and individual programs of study for the PhD degree are determined by each student in consultation with a faculty advisor and the Graduate Education Committee. This ensures that students entering the program from departments other than Pharmacology satisfy the requirements of their respective departments.

Students typically complete the following core courses: Protein Structure, Catalysis and Interaction; Structure and Function of the Genome; Mechanisms of Cell Communication; Physiology of Specialized Cells; Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology I and II; Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology; Systems Pharmacology and Therapeutics I and II; Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences; and three advanced electives. The training plan has been approved by the participating departments as fulfilling their requirements, without requiring an excessive course load. Students spend summers engaged in research and are expected to participate in an industry research training opportunity the summer after the first year of study.

Course Requirements

The Core—18 credits

  • GMS FC 701, 702, 704 (6 cr)
  • GMS FC 707 Physiology of Specialized Cells (2 cr) [or ENG BE 706 Quantitative Physiology for Engineers (4 cr)]
  • GMS PM 701 & 702 Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology (4 cr)
  • GMS PM 801 & 802 Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics (4 cr)
  • GMS PM 810 Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences (2 cr)

Program electives—6-credit minimum

  • GMS FC 703 Architecture and Dynamics of the Cell (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 820 Behavioral Pharmacology (Neuropsychopharmacology) (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 830 Principles of Pharmacokinetics (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 832 Pharmacogenomics (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 843 Pharmacologic Intervention in the Inflammatory Response (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 881 Drug Discovery and Development (2 cr)
  • GMS MS 700 Elementary Biostatistics (2 cr)
  • GMS AN 802 Foundations of Experimental Design and Statistics (2 cr)
  • GMS BY 760 Foundations of Biophysics and Structural Biology (4 cr)
  • GMS BY 771 Biophysics of Macromolecular Assemblies (4 cr)
  • GMS BY 772 Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy in Biology and Biophysics (2 cr)
  • ENG BE 560 Biomolecular Architecture (4 cr)
  • ENG BE 561 DNA and Protein Sequence Analysis (4 cr)
  • ENG BE 565 Molecular Biotechnology (2 cr)
  • ENG BE 726 Fundamentals of Biomaterials (4 cr)
  • ENG BE 727 Principles and Applications of Tissue Engineering (4 cr)
  • GMS BI 776 Gene Targeting in Transgenic Mice (2 cr)
  • GMS BI 778 Molecular Mechanisms of Cardiovascular Disease (2 cr)
  • GMS BI 789 Methods and Modeling in Molecular Biochemistry (2 cr)
  • GMS MS 783 Molecular Basis of Neurologic Disease (2 cr)
  • GMS AN 810 Systems Neurobiology (2 cr)
  • GMS AN 811 Cognitive Neuroscience (2 cr)
  • GMS AN 709 Neural Development and Plasticity (2 cr)
  • GMS MM 703 Cancer Biology and Genetics (2 cr)
  • CLA CN 510 Principles and Methods of Cognitive and Neural Modeling (4 cr)

Seminar Courses (2 credits)

  • GMS PM 810 Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences (2 cr)
  • ENG BE 790 Biomedical Engineering Seminar (no cr)
  • GMS BY 871, 872 Biophysics Seminar (2 cr)

Laboratory Rotations—4 credits

  • GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology ( 2 cr; two semesters required in the first year; this is a laboratory rotation course and students may elect to complete additional laboratory rotations during the summer of the first year)

Interdisciplinary PhD Program—Pharmacology and Neuroscience

The Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics offers a PhD in Pharmacology and Biomedical Neuroscience in coordination with the University-wide Graduate Program for Neuroscience.

This collaborative training program covers the complete spectrum of contemporary neuroscience research, ranging from developmental and cognitive neuroscience to the molecular genetics of the nervous system and the development of synthetic biomolecules that alter the function of defined receptor populations. Students take core coursework in both pharmacology and neuroscience.

The goal of the joint program is to enhance interdisciplinary training and research and to provide an academic and research environment at Boston University that trains and inspires the pre-doctoral student to pursue a career that is relevant to the treatment of nervous system disorders. The central element of this program is an intensive period of full-time research in biomedical neuroscience. Students benefit from and contribute to the cross-campus neuroscience community that is an integral part of Boston University.

Interdisciplinary PhD Training Program—Biomedical Engineering and Biomolecular Pharmacology

Biomedical Engineering (BME) applicants with interest in the pharmacological sciences are encouraged to consider interdisciplinary training through participation in the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) PhD Interdepartmental Training Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology. BME students in this program develop expertise in the pharmacological sciences through additional courses taken at Boston University School of Medicine (Foundations in Biomedical Sciences, Molecular Neurobiology & Pharmacology, Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology, Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics, and Current Topics in the Pharmacological Sciences) and through research training with a Training Program faculty member. Current BME faculty participants include Professors Irving Bigio, Mark Grinstaff, Catherine Klapperich, Tyrone Porter, Joyce Wong, and Muhammad Zaman.

Applicants should indicate their interest in this interdisciplinary program in the personal statement of the BME application form in order to be considered for participation and possible stipend and tuition support from the NIGMS training grant after the first year in the program.

Curriculum for BME Students in the Biomolecular Pharmacology Training Program

Year 1 Fall (16 cr)
  • ENG BE 605 Molecular Bioengineering (4 cr)
  • BME curriculum elective #1 (500 or 700 level BE course) (4 cr)
  • GMS PM 701 Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology I (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology  (2 cr)
Year 1 Spring (12 cr)
  • ENG BE 606 Quantitative Physiology for Engineers (4 cr)
  • BME curriculum elective #2 (500 or 700 level BE course) (4 cr)
  • GMS PM 702 Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology II (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology (2 cr)
Year 2 Fall (6 cr)
  • GMS PM 801 Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics I (2 cr)
  • ENG BME elective #3 (500 or 700 level BE course) (4 cr)
  • Math course requirement (4 cr)
Year 2 Spring (4 cr)
  • GMS PM 802 Systems Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics II (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 810 Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences (2 cr)
Year 2 or Year 3 Fall and Spring (8 cr)
  • BE 801, 802 Teaching Practicum (4 cr, each semester)
  • BE 792 Critical Literature Review (2 cr)

Students are also expected to attend pharmacology seminars and participate in the industry internship the summer after the first year in the program.

Laboratory Rotations

During the first year, pre-doctoral trainees register for two semesters of GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology, in which they complete four laboratory rotations of seven weeks each. Students choose rotation mentors from the participating faculty, independent of department affiliation. This rotation experience provides exposure to a variety of experimental approaches to the study of pharmacology. Trainees are encouraged to select rotations in laboratories that approach problems from different perspectives, in keeping with the program’s fundamental goal of providing them a broad and more complete understanding of research strategies that have been developed to address questions of pharmacological importance. Rotations are designed to be a teaching instrument and students are encouraged to obtain publication quality data. Each student submits a paper written in the style of a research manuscript after each rotation that summarizes his or her research experience. At the end of each semester, there is an additional course meeting at which students will deliver presentations of their rotation experiences. Students receive a grade of Pass or Fail based upon their performance in research rotations and the grading of their written reports. The course manager reviews papers, provides evaluations to students, and maintains feedback to the faculty.

Industry Internship

To broaden their experience of the range of pharmacological research, trainees are expected to complete an internship in an industrial laboratory, made available via partnerships with industry research groups.

Seminars

The Biomolecular Pharmacology seminar program has been expanded through support provided by institutional sources, the endowed Sterling Drug Visiting Professorship, and by an award from the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation. All students are required to attend pharmacology seminars. In addition, students register for at least one semester of Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences. In this course, the guest lecturer attends student presentations of research paper(s) related to the lecturer’s research. This course has proved to be highly successful in providing students with essential background to the seminar speaker’s work and thereby preparing the students to participate actively in the department seminar. Trainees also receive information about seminars offered by other departments and are encouraged to attend those seminars relating to their area of research.

Qualifying Examination

At the end of the second year, each student takes a qualifying examination offered by his/her department of entry, which includes both written and oral components. For students entering through the Department of Pharmacology, the qualifying examination is administered by a committee of three faculty members selected by the student in consultation with his/her advisor. The composition of the Qualifying Examination Committee is reviewed and approved by the Program Director and emphasis is placed upon representation of faculty from other participating departments. The written component of the examination is in the form of a 10-page research proposal on a topic selected by the student. After passing the written examination, the student undergoes an oral examination by the Qualifying Examination Committee, designed to test the student’s ability to integrate information and reason experimentally.

Monitoring of Student Progress

Prior to selection of a research mentor, student progress is monitored by the Program Director, who serves as the first-year advisor for entering students, and by the course manager of the laboratory rotations course. The Graduate Education Committee reviews the progress of each program student after the completion of each semester. In the fall of the third year, a Dissertation Advisory Committee is constituted for each student, which meets every semester (or more frequently if necessary) through the remainder of the student’s graduate studies. After each meeting, the Dissertation Advisory Committee submits a written report on the student’s progress to the Program Director. At the end of the third year, each student presents a progress report on his/her research to the Department of Pharmacology. Upon completion of the dissertation the Dissertation Defense Committee, usually the Dissertation Advisory Committee plus one or more outside members, holds a pre-defense meeting to verify that the student is prepared to proceed to the dissertation defense. At the defense the student presents his/her work in a seminar and then meets with the Dissertation Defense Committee to defend his/her dissertation.

Group Meeting Presentations

Each faculty member meets regularly with trainees to discuss ongoing projects in the context of the research literature. At these meetings, trainees give informal presentations of their current research and discuss results of recent papers from the literature. This forum also gives trainees the opportunity to discuss with faculty issues related to the training, as well as suggestions for improvement in the program.

Presentation of Research Findings

Trainees are expected to present their research findings at national research meetings. Although graduate students tend to prefer the poster mode of presentation at meetings, all trainees are encouraged to give at least one slide presentation at a national meeting. They are also encouraged to present research findings at regional and local meetings. Students selected for appointment to the Biomolecular Pharmacology Training Grant use the travel funds to help support attendance at regional and national meetings.

Trainees also participate in the interdisciplinary forums at the Medical School for presentation and discussion of research, including the monthly Graduate Student Forum. Students are also expected to participate in the Henry I. Russek Student Achievement Day and Awards Program, organized by Shelley Russek, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology. Each year since 1995, about 100 PhD and MD/PhD students participate by presenting posters and supporting their fellow students. One student from each basic science department and degree-granting program is selected to receive a $2,000 award that acknowledges their dedication and research accomplishments. Prior to the awards ceremony, each award winner presents their results in a slide format. All students in the training program participate in this event.

Students also are encouraged to participate in the Boston University Scholars Day, a University-wide graduate student research symposium. Awards are presented to students, based on their abstracts and poster presentations, and students from the Biomolecular Pharmacology Program have an outstanding record of achievement at this meeting.

Selection of Students for Training Grant Support

Individuals with baccalaureate degrees who meet the requirements of the participating departments are considered for acceptance into the pre-doctoral program. Training grant support is only awarded to PhD candidates who are US citizens or permanent residents. Candidates include PhD students enrolled through the Pharmacology and Biomedical Engineering Departments and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, and MD/PhD students enrolled at Boston University. The latter are eligible to receive a stipend only during their PhD training period, which is normally between the second and third years of medical training. Students who enter the Program through the Department of Pharmacology or other departments of the Division of Medical Sciences are supported by funds from the Division of Medical Sciences in their first year of training, and are eligible for Training Grant support in the second and third years of their PhD training. Students who enter through departments on the Charles River campus are considered for Training Grant support after the first year of PhD training.

Students are nominated by participating faculty and departmental admissions committees. The following criteria are used to prioritize nominees and select students for training grant support:

  1. Highest priority is assigned to students who have identified pharmacology as their major field of interest by having enrolled in graduate training through the Biomolecular Pharmacology Program. Students who enter through Biomedical Engineering and who exhibit a strong interest in pharmacology are eligible. Minority applicants are identified and given careful consideration.
  2. The caliber and interests of the candidate are important considerations. Highest priority is assigned to students with the strongest undergraduate and graduate academic record, including grade point average, standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, research experience, interest in study of pharmacology at the molecular or integrative level, and desire to capitalize on the resources of the interdisciplinary components of the program.

Special attention is devoted to equitable distribution of students supported by the training grant among the eligible participating faculty.

Students supported by the training grant are expected to satisfy the requirements of the program and will be identified as trainees in Biomolecular Pharmacology throughout the duration of their graduate training regardless of sources of support in terminal years.

MA Curriculum

The course requirements for MA candidates are 16 credits of formal coursework including Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology I and II, Current Topics in the Pharmacological Sciences, and one additional 2-credit advanced course (800-level) in Pharmacology. The Graduate Education Committee will consider written requests from students to substitute or place out of courses. In addition, students are required to attend departmental seminars.

After satisfactorily completing the first-year curriculum with a GPA of B (3.0) or higher, an MA candidate can, with the approval of the advisor, the Graduate Education Committee, and the Department Chairman request a transfer into the PhD program by submitting a petition to the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences.

The MA degree requirements include preparation and submission of a thesis under the supervision of first and second readers. The thesis is based on the student’s original research, either library or laboratory based.

Training in Responsible Conduct of Research

Formal training on scientific integrity and issues of ethical principles in research is a required component of the curriculum. Boston University School of Medicine sponsors a series of lectures, seminars and workshops devoted to the responsible conduct of research. The Program in Responsible Conduct of Research is organized by the RCR Education Advisory Committee and implemented through the Boston University and Boston Medical Center Office of Research Compliance. To a very large extent, the topics addressed by this program match those identified by Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, the American Association of Medical Colleges and the National Institutes of Health. This program, which was instituted in 1991, has covered a wide range of issues concerning the responsible conduct of research including, but not limited to, data acquisition, management, sharing and ownership, mentor/trainee responsibilities, publication practices and responsible authorship, peer review, collaborations, human subjects, laboratory animals, research misconduct, and conflict of interest. The series is offered periodically throughout the academic year to provide an ongoing dynamic forum for the exchange of ideas. Detailed information is provided at the Research Compliance office.

Evaluation of Student Progress

The Graduate Education Committee has established a file in which information such as course grades and progress in meeting Division and Department requirements is recorded. The files are also used to assist faculty in writing letters of recommendation. Faculty provide results of qualifying exams and reports on Dissertation Advisory Committee meetings to the Academic Coordinator for inclusion in student files. After each semester, the committee presents a report on the progress of each student at a departmental faculty meeting, and the student will be evaluated with respect to continuation of financial aid and enrollment in the program. The committee will also monitor attendance of students at pharmacology seminars and, if necessary, remind the students that their participation at seminars is required. Should a student request a leave of absence or an extension of time to finish the degree, the petition must be approved by the Advisor and the Graduate Education Committee before submission to the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences.

Student Achievement

Students enrolled in the PhD program in pharmacology are expected to maintain a GPA of B (3.0) or higher. Students who fail to meet this standard will be considered by the Graduate Education Committee for a terminal MA degree only. Students will not receive course credit for marks below B–, in accord with standards of the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences. For students enrolled in the MA program, petitions for transfer to the PhD program in pharmacology will not be approved by the department unless the student has earned a GPA of B or higher in the first year curriculum.

Graduate Education Committee

Most functions of the departmental graduate program are managed by a committee of four faculty members and one graduate student. The graduate student representative is selected every September by the students themselves. The committee meets regularly to review matters that relate directly to the program as it is described above and to make recommendations to the department chair.

For detailed descriptions of the academic programs in pharmacology, pharmacology and biomedical neurosciences, and pharmacology and biomedical engineering, please refer to the department website.

For further information contact the Academic Coordinator of the Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics at pharm2@bu.edu.