PhD in Oral Biology

The Department of Molecular & Cell Biology at Boston University’s Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine offers a PhD in Oral Biology. The program recruits students with backgrounds in the life and basic sciences that are interested in additional advanced training in dental and medical sciences. Applicants must apply to the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PiBS).

In the first year, PhD students will participate in the Foundations in Biomedical Sciences (FiBS) core curriculum as well as have the opportunity to select elective courses focused on area-specific interests. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to experience laboratory rotations and engage in journal clubs and research seminars. At the end of the first year, students who select the PhD in Oral Biology* will work closely with a Molecular & Cell Biology faculty advisor in the development of an individual plan that will be tailored to serve specific research and professional goals.

*Beginning with the 2015–2016 academic year, the PhD in Oral Biology degree will read “PhD in Oral Biology, Program in Biomedical Sciences”.

The aim of the PhD in Oral Biology program is to educate students in modern scientific approaches to oral and craniofacial biology and disease. The program is designed for the student whose primary goal is to pursue an academic career in oral biology research. The oral cavity is unique regarding its microbiology, connective tissue structures, and host responses. Moreover, oral diseases present unsolved scientific challenges and novel biological phenomena. The importance of understanding the oral biology of diseases whose incidence and severity increase with age is clearly understood within the context of current demographic trends.

Research Topics

Among the research topics explored in Oral Biology are:

  • Structure, function, biosynthesis, and genetics of salivary proteins
  • Post-translational modifications, with particular emphasis on phosphorylation of salivary proteins
  • Protein-mineral interactions and their role in the function of hard tissues
  • Mechanisms of pellicle and plaque formation; mechanisms and regulation of exocrine processes
  • Oral host defense mechanisms in caries and periodontal disease
  • Intercellular signaling, focusing on chemotaxis of monocytes to inflamed tissues
  • Regulation of connective tissue accumulation in mineralized and non-mineralized oral tissues
  • Production of growth and chemotactic factors by normal and transformed mesenchymal and hematopoietic cells
  • Connective tissue production by primary periodontal cells and effects of fibrogenic drugs and cytokines
  • Mechanisms of tumor suppression
  • Regulation of genes
  • Altered inflammatory cell signal transduction pathways in Juvenile Periodontitis, and control of periodontal tissue regeneration

In addition, research projects may include clinical components focusing on inflammation, periodontal disease, tissue fibrosis, aging, developmental defects and oral cancer. These studies will be carried out in collaboration with the clinical faculty at the Clinical Research Center, located at the Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine.

Selection & Duration

The PhD program selects candidates who clearly express the desire to pursue a career in basic oral biology research. The PhD program requires a minimum of five years, with extensive didactic and research training.

Requirements and Curriculum

Post-Bachelor’s Candidates

Post-bachelor’s PhD candidates will complete at least 40 credits of didactic coursework and credits in dissertation directed laboratory research for a total of 64 credits. It is anticipated that most candidates will require five years to fulfill these requirements.

Additional credits to complete the 40 credits didactic course requirements will be obtained from at least two courses in biochemistry, biophysics, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, or other graduate medical science courses with permission from the instructor, the advisor, and the PhD program director.

The Division of Graduate Medical Sciences strongly recommends consideration of Bacterial Physiology (GMS MI 716) as an elective for PhD candidates, given the importance of oral flora to oral biology.

Post-Graduate Didactic Coursework

Students already holding a Master’s degree or dental and/or medical degrees may be permitted to complete 12-16 credits of didactic coursework. This requires specific approval from the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences’ Student Affairs Committee, and must be specifically requested by the student. The choice of courses will depend on the specific background and training of the student.

The course curriculum consists of the following core didactic courses, plus supplementary courses selected from the following list of graduate school courses offered by the School of Dental Medicine. Course descriptions taught by the School of Dental Medicine follow the course listings.


Required Courses

  • GMS OB 755 Basic Processes in Oral Biology A
  • GMS OB 756 Basic Processes in Oral Biology B
  • GMS OB 800 Advanced Oral Biology
  • GMS OB 761 Oral Microbiology
  • GMS OB 700 Applied Statistics
  • GMS OB 805 Oral Biology seminars
  • GMS OB 806 Oral Biology seminars
  • GMS FC 701 Protein Structure, Catalysts, and Interaction
  • GMS FC 702 Structure and Function of the Genome
  • GMS FC 703 Architecture and Dynamics of the Cell
  • GMS FC 704 Mechanisms of Cell Communication

Additional Courses

  • Biophysics
  • Microbiology
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Division Courses

Note that we offer Advanced Oral Biology (SDM OB 800) every two years. This allows for a class size of six PhD candidates from the Division of Oral Biology. Thus, some PhD candidates take this course in year three instead of year two. If we find that the class size is greatly increased due to course enrollment by interested students from other Division of Graduate Medical Sciences departments, we will consider offering this course every year.

Graduation Requirements

Qualifying Examination

Successful candidates will pass a comprehensive/qualifying examination by the end of the second year. The qualifying examination committee consists of core faculty members from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. It meets yearly to evaluate students’ performance. The examination includes written and oral components. The same committee administers both the written and oral components of the exam.

The written component is given at the end of the first year and covers knowledge in biochemistry, oral microbiology, and topics covered in Basic Processes in Oral Biology (GMS OB 763 and 764). The written exam consists of short answer and essay questions.

The oral exam is given upon the completion of the second year. The exam is designed for each student taking into consideration the courses taken. The oral exam covers both knowledge and ability to critically evaluate current research in oral biology. Recent scientific papers are chosen and assigned by the committee in advance of the exam.


Students are required to maintain a minimum of a B average in all coursework. Six credits of C+ or lower will result in termination of the student from the program.


During the first year, each student is required to complete at least three research rotations in the program faculty laboratories. This is supervised and coordinated by the Chairman of the Student Affairs Committee, who will serve as advisor to all PhD candidates prior to choosing his/her research advisor. By the end of the first year, each student is required to request a research advisor and a research topic as directed by the Student Affairs Committee.


Candidates for PhD degrees are required to submit a written dissertation describing original research and demonstrating the development of independent scholarship. Dissertation research is conducted under the supervision and guidance of the research advisor, a member or the faculty. Assignment of students to laboratories is made by the Student Affairs Committee and the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. In consultation with the advisor, a student selects a minimum of four faculty members to act as the Dissertation Advisory Committee. This committee has the power to recommend to the Student Affairs Committee that a student be placed on probation. If the student fails to meet requirements specified by the Student Affairs Committee in consultation with the Dissertation Advisory Committee, the student may be dismissed from the PhD Program in Oral Biology without award of the PhD degree.


Students are required to defend their dissertations. They are expected to demonstrate expertise in their chosen field of specialization and to provide documentation of their contribution to the accumulated body of knowledge. The oral examination is conducted by the Dissertation Committee composed of at least five members of the Dental and Medical School faculty. It is expected that members of the candidates Dissertation Advisory Committee will also serve on the Dissertation Committee. One member of the Dissertation Committee must be from a department other than the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. In some cases, at the discretion of the Chair of the Dissertation of the Committee, one of the five Dissertation Committee members could be appointed from outside the Boston University Dental and Medical Schools.

Students who fail to meet any requirement for the PhD degree may be dismissed from the PhD Program without award of any degree. Students can petition the GMS Student Affairs Committee for award of the MSD. The award of the MSD depends upon didactic and research accomplishments and will be considered on a case by case basis. Award of the MSD requires, in addition, approval by the Dean of the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine