NIH Grant to Fund Quantitative Biology and Physiology Training Program


By Mark Dwortzan

Professor Irving Bigio (BME) (center) directs the NIH-funded Quantitative Biology and Physiology program at BU.
Professor Irving Bigio (BME) (center) directs the NIH-funded Quantitative Biology and Physiology program at BU.

By studying dynamic processes involved in the death of cells at the molecular level, Professor Irving Bigio’s (BME) BioMedical Optics Lab aims to learn more about diagnosing and monitoring cancer at the patient level. By observing how arterial cells coalesce at the tissue level, Associate Professor Joyce Wong’s (BME, MSE) Biomimetic Materials Engineering Lab is working to engineer artificial arteries for cardiovascular patients.

Key to the success of both groups is the knowledge and skills to investigate and analyze biological phenomenon at multiple length scales—from the molecular to the whole patient.

Recognizing the critical value of this capability, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a five-year training grant in Quantitative Biology and Physiology (QBP) to the Biomedical Engineering Department that will fund seven new doctoral students per year starting in the fall 2012 semester. The award marks the third time that the BME Department has received this highly competitive grant since 2000, and boosts the number of incoming BME PhD students funded by the NIH to 11. (The NIH funds a separate BME training grant in Translational Research in Biomaterials.)

The QBP program provides first- and second-year BME graduate students with the rare opportunity to study biological and physiological phenomena from a wide range of vantage points and to analyze them with state-of-the-art quantitative methods, said Professor Irving Bigio (BME), director of the program.

“Through a combination of coursework and four lab rotations, the QBP program emphasizes knowledge and experience at multiple scale lengths of biology and physiology, from molecular to cellular to tissue to organ to whole body, and involves a substantial amount of quantitative measurement,” he noted. “As the program moves forward, students will also gain increased exposure to ethical research practices and issues involved in the translation of research into clinical applications.”

In addition to courses and lab research, QBP students participate in a journal club in which they critique recently published peer-reviewed articles, an annual symposium where they present their own research, and monthly dinners and other social events. Although they are supported after their NIH-funded year by faculty advisors’ research grants, they remain involved in program activities throughout their time as BME PhD students.

Carrying single or multiple appointments in biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, physics and medicine, about two dozen QBP faculty members embody the spirit of the program and host QBP students for lab rotations. They engage in quantitative research that covers more than one length scale, and in many cases collaborate with medical researchers and clinicians. QBP students will conduct their doctoral research in one of these labs.

The program is well suited to the BME Department’s emphasis on quantitative science, said Bigio, noting that nearly all BME graduate courses incorporate a significant amount of mathematics and physical science.

“We’re one of the most quantitative BME departments in the country,” Bigio maintained.