Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics

PhD Training Program

NIGMS Training Grant/Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology

The training program in Biomolecular Pharmacology at BU Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine was honored in July 1997 with the award of a National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) T32 Instructional Training Grant (Principal Investigator/Program Director, David H. Farb, PhD). In the 24-plus years since its inception, this University-wide program has flourished, providing a unique interdisciplinary and interdepartmental learning environment for doctoral students that spans the campuses of Boston University, giving access to some of the most outstanding laboratories in the fields of cancer, cardiovascular biology, metabolomics, neuropharmacology, neuroscience, and drug development.

Program in Biomolecular Pharmacology

Pharmacology has historically been an interdisciplinary field, positioned at the point of convergence of physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, organic chemistry, behavioral science, bioinformatics, and medicine. Emerging research in pharmacology will bring together an even wider range of disciplines, combining traditional aspects of pharmacology with novel approaches drawn from other disciplines, such as computational sciences, big data analysis, medicine, neural circuitry, biophysics, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, bioimaging, and molecular genetics.

The predoctoral training program in Biomolecular Pharmacology is based on a training partnership among faculty in the Departments of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics, Anatomy & Neurobiology, Biology, Biochemistry & Cell Biology, Chemistry, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine, Psychology, and the University-wide Graduate Program for Neuroscience. The curriculum formalizes interdisciplinary predoctoral training in molecular and translational pharmacology. Students receive formal training in the principles of molecular pharmacology and drug discovery and development, as well as in molecular genetics, 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. The structure of the program catalyzes 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 pharmacology.

PhD Curriculum

The major focus of the training program is the development of expertise in basic and translational research, including effective scientific speaking and writing skills. Students receive guidance throughout the program in the development of their professional skills, including planning of career progression. The average tenure of PhD candidates in the Biomolecular Pharmacology training program is five to six years. The first two years of the program emphasize formal coursework designed to build understanding of the fundamental principles and methodology of pharmacology as it applies to biomedical research as well as drug development, administration, and mechanism of action. In addition, upon matriculation, students begin a sequence of three required laboratory rotations with outstanding mentors in research areas that include the pharmacology of addiction, aging, cancer, cardiology, drug design and delivery, epilepsy, and learning and memory. Other relevant fields include metabolomics, nanomedicine, neurodegeneration, and neurodevelopment using models as diverse as C. elegans, rodents, and zebrafish. The fourth rotation is optional. Emphasis is placed on the relevance of the research to treating diseases in human subjects. The laboratory rotations provide students with the opportunity to investigate potential areas for dissertation research while enhancing the breadth of their training. Students participate in an industry research training opportunity the summer after the first year of study, which provides firsthand experiences outside of the academic environment for developing future career planning with help from the program’s mentorship team.

Since the inception of the Biomolecular Pharmacology training program, most students have entered through the Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics Department, but they can also enter through other departments or programs, such as the Graduate Program for Neuroscience. Specific requirements include satisfactory completion of core courses (18 credits), a laboratory rotations course (4 credits), elective courses (6 credits minimum), and 64 credits in total for post-BA students and 32 for post-MA. Students are expected to enroll in the following core curriculum courses in their first two years of study: modules I, II, IV, and V of Foundations in Biomedical Sciences (FiBS) course; Molecular and Translational Pharmacology; Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology; Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology; Systems Pharmacology and Therapeutics I and II; Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences; and a course in biostatistics. Students also have the opportunity to take elective courses in pharmacology, including Cancer Biology and Genetics, Behavioral Pharmacology, Pharmacologic Intervention in Inflammatory Responses, and Drug Discovery and Development. This latter course is taught by instructors from Pfizer Inc., providing a unique industry perspective on the pharmacological sciences. During the last three years in training, students focus on the completion of their dissertation research. Students are also required to complete a minimum of 6 credits of advanced coursework and report on their dissertation research in informal (Graduate Student Forums) and formal (Student Seminar series) settings. They are also expected to participate in activities to develop their professional skills in diverse careers in the biomedical workforce. Details of these activities are provided below.

MD/PhD candidates enter the PhD component of their training program after completing the first two years of the MD curriculum. These students complete 10 credits of pharmacology “core” coursework, including Molecular and Translational Pharmacology, Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology, Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences, and 4 credits of electives. (MD/PhD students who intend to pursue cancer research for their dissertation may substitute Cancer Biology and Genetics for Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology.)

Learning Outcomes

The goal of the PhD program in Biomolecular Pharmacology is to train the next generation of biomedical scientists for careers in drug discovery and development. The following learning outcomes are integral to the programmatic training goal:

  • Demonstrate proficiency in areas of cellular and molecular biology, genomics, and physiology as they relate to molecular pharmacology.
  • Demonstrate proficiency in basic and advanced topics in pharmacology, including ligand-receptor theory, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, neuropharmacology, and systems pharmacology.
  • Generate and document original research findings in molecular pharmacology that include neuro, cardiovascular, and cancer pharmacology as key focus areas. The research must follow tenets of rigor and reproducibility.

Course Requirements

The Core—18 credits minimum

  • GMS FC 711, 712, 714 (9 cr) (required for program students who enter through the Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics Department)
  • GMS FC 717 Physiology of Specialized Cells (3 cr) [or ENG BE 706 Quantitative Physiology for Engineers (4 cr)]
  • GMS PM 701 Molecular and Translational Pharmacology (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 702 Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 801 Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics I (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 802 Systems Pharmacology & Therapeutics II (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 810 Current Topics in Pharmacological Sciences (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 931 Research in Pharmacology (var cr)
  • GMS PM 932 Research in Pharmacology (var cr)

Program Electives—6-credit minimum

  • CAS CN 510 Principles and Methods of Cognitive and Neural Modeling (4 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 568 Systems Biology of Human Disease (4 cr)
  • ENG BE 726 Fundamentals of Biomaterials (4 cr)
  • ENG BE 727 Principles and Applications of Tissue Engineering (4 cr)
  • GMS AN 704 Experimental Design and Statistics (3 cr)
  • GMS AN 810 Systems Neurobiology (4 cr)
  • GMS BI 776 Gene Targeting in Transgenic Mice (2 cr)
  • GMS BI 777 Techniques in Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology (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 & Biochemistry (2 cr)
  • GMS FC 713 Architecture and Dynamics of the Cell (2 cr)
  • GMS FC 705 Translational Genetics and Genomics (2 cr)
  • GMS FC 720 Statistical Reasoning for the Basic Biomedical Sciences (3 cr)
  • GMS MM 703 Cancer Biology and Genetics (2 cr)
  • GMS MS 700 Elementary Biostatistics (2 cr)
  • GMS MS 710 Transdisciplinary Addiction Science (2 cr)
  • GMS MS 783 Molecular Basis of Neurologic Disease (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 820 Behavioral Pharmacology (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 843 Pharmacologic Intervention in Inflammatory Responses (2 cr)
  • GMS PM 881 Drug Discovery and Development (2 cr)
  • GRS MA 665/666 An Introduction to Mathematical Models & Data Analysis in Neuroscience (2 cr)
  • GRS NE 741 Neural Systems: Functional Circuit Analysis (4 cr)
  • GRS NE 742 Neural Systems: Cognition and Behavior (4 cr)
  • SPH BS 704 Introduction to Biostatistics (3 cr)

Other Seminar Courses (2 credits)

  • ENG BE 790 Biomedical Engineering Seminar (0 cr)
  • ENG BE 792 Critical Literature Review (2 cr)
  • GRS NE 500 Frontiers in Neuroscience (2 cr)

Laboratory Rotations—4 credits

  • ENG BE 791 Laboratory Rotations in Biomedical Engineering (3 cr)
  • GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology (2 cr fall, 2 cr spring); this is a two-semester course with 7-week laboratory rotations to help identify a dissertation research mentor
  • GRS NE 800/1 Experimental Research in Neuroscience (3 cr)

Students are also accepted into the training program through departments other than Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics and through programs such as the Graduate Program for Neuroscience. Each of these PhD-granting programs, like pharmacology, requires 64 credit hours for completion plus a qualifying examination and a successful oral dissertation defense. The Biomolecular Pharmacology Program works with these PhD-granting units to develop training in pharmacology that will enhance the environment of the individual PhD discipline as described below.

Interdisciplinary PhD Program—Biomolecular Pharmacology and Neuroscience

For pharmacology students conducting neuroscience-relevant dissertation research, the Biomolecular Pharmacology Training Program offers a specialization in neuroscience that is managed by the University-wide Graduate Program for Neuroscience. GPN and its community of students and faculty 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 in Biomolecular Pharmacology take selected “core” neuroscience coursework with their student colleagues in the GPN program so that they emerge after training with a basic foundation in the field. Likewise, students in GPN receiving the PhD in neuroscience can choose to take selected “core” coursework with their student colleagues in the field of pharmacology.

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 predoctoral pharmacology 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 Program—Biomolecular Pharmacology and Biomedical Engineering

Biomedical Engineering (BME) students 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 the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine including Molecular and Translational Pharmacology, Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology or Cancer Biology and Genetics, 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, Xue Han, Catherine Klapperich, John White, 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.

Laboratory Rotations

During the first year, predoctoral trainees enrolled through the Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics Department register for two semesters of GMS PM 710 Laboratory Techniques in Modern Pharmacology, in which they complete three, or sometimes 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 their research experience. At the end of each semester, there is an additional course meeting at which students 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.

Industrial Internships in the Pharmaceutical Sciences

To broaden their experience on the range of pharmacological research and career opportunities that a PhD in pharmacology offers a 7-week internship in an industrial laboratory, made available via BU partnerships with industry research groups at Pfizer and Biogen.


The Biomolecular Pharmacology seminar program, supported by institutional sources and the endowed Sterling Drug Visiting Professorship, brings outstanding scientists to Boston University from throughout the US. 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 seminar speaker attends student presentations of research paper(s) related to the speaker’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 their department of entry, which includes both a written and an oral component. For students entering through the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics, the qualifying examination is administered by a committee of three faculty members selected by the student in consultation with their advisor. The composition of the Qualifying Examination Committee is reviewed and approved by the Program Director. The written component of the examination is in the form of a 6-page research proposal on a topic selected by the student and in the format of an NIH NRSA F30 or F31 application. After passing the written examination, the student undergoes an oral examination by the Qualifying Examination Committee, designed to test the student’s grasp of experimental design, understanding of statistics, knowledge of fundamentals of pharmacology, and knowledge of the subject matter of the qualifying examination proposal.

Workshops are held during the spring semester of the second year to help pharmacology students prepare for the qualifying examination. (Students participate in GMS PM 932 Technical and Professional Skills in Pharmacology.) This course focuses on the development of skill in preparing research proposals, including use of appropriate experimental design and statistical analysis. An objective of the workshops and the qualifying examination is to enhance student skill in preparing predoctoral fellowship applications to external funding agencies including the NIH and maximize the likelihood of awards.

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. In the fall of the third year, a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) is constituted for each student, following successful completion of the PhD qualifying exams. The DAC meets every semester (or more frequently if necessary) through the remainder of the student’s graduate studies. After each meeting, the DAC submits a written report on the student’s progress to the Program Director.

A Student Seminar Series is held each year to enhance student research presentation skills and improve student and faculty awareness of T32 program research. Students receive training on giving clear and effective scientific presentations, focused on their thesis research, to a large and diverse scientific audience. Each PhD candidate is expected to give an annual research presentation beginning in their second year. Seminars are optional for students entering through GPN, as they participate in their own seminar series. Standard student seminars are 15 minutes followed by 5 minutes of discussion. Progress report seminars, given by students who have submitted at least one first author research manuscript and are within one year of graduation, are 35 minutes followed by 5 minutes of discussion. Each seminar session includes two or three student presenters. Students and faculty provide constructive feedback to students on presentation skills and style, as well as the scientific aspect of the talk, through evaluation forms.

About one year before the expected dissertation defense date, each student presents a progress report seminar. The PhD candidate presents a progress report on the dissertation project in the Student Seminar Series, which is followed by a meeting of the DAC. The timing of this seminar is decided by the student and advisor with input from the DAC, but cannot occur until the student has submitted a first or co-first author original research manuscript for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. It is strongly recommended that the progress report seminar occur no later than the end of the spring semester of the fifth year (10th semester) of graduate study for PhD candidates and fourth year (8th semester) of graduate study for MD/PhD candidates. The written Progress Report is a first-authored (or co-first authored) research manuscript prepared under the supervision of the thesis advisor, which is submitted for publication prior to the DAC meeting. If the student has already published one or more first-authored or co-first authored manuscripts, these and any other publications may be presented, with the approval of the dissertation advisor, to the DAC as all or part of the written Progress Report.

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 their work in a seminar and then meets with the Dissertation Defense Committee to defend their 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 encouraged to develop their research presentation skills through participation in a variety of meetings, including the meetings of their laboratory research group, the Graduate Research Forum, and the Dissertation Advisory Committees, which are described above. A newly instituted Student Seminar Series provides predoctoral and postdoctoral students an opportunity to present a short talk on their research to a broader audience at the Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. Presenters are provided constructive written feedback from the audience of faculty and students.

Trainees also participate in a variety of other interdisciplinary forums at Boston University for presentation and discussion of research. Students are expected to participate in the Henry I. Russek Student Achievement Day and Awards Program, organized by Shelley Russek, PhD, Professor of Pharmacology and Biology. Each year since 1995, about 100 PhD and MD/PhD students participate by presenting posters and supporting their fellow students. Students from each basic science department and degree-granting program are selected to receive a monetary award that acknowledges their dedication and research accomplishments. Prior to the awards ceremony, first-place awardees present 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 Graduate Research and Genome Sciences Institute Research Symposia. Awards are presented to students based on their abstracts and poster presentations. Students from the Biomolecular Pharmacology Program have an outstanding record of achievement at these meetings.

Trainees are also expected to present their research findings at national research meetings. All trainees are encouraged to give at least one oral talk at a national meeting if selected. 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. Travel funds are also available through Graduate Medical Sciences.

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 predoctoral program. Stipend support through the NIGMS-funded T32 Biomolecular Pharmacology training grant is only awarded to PhD candidates who are US citizens or permanent residents. Candidates include PhD students enrolled through the Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics 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, Physiology & Biophysics or other departments of Graduate Medical Sciences are supported by funds from Graduate Medical Sciences in their first year of training, and are eligible for Training Grant support in their second or third year. 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 the Graduate Program for Neuroscience or 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. Selection of Training Grant Eligible (TGE) students is based on three key criteria: (A) academic ranking, (B) programmatic ranking, (C) special considerations given to underrepresented minority (URM) students or students with developmental disabilities (DD). The T32 Appointments Committee reviews applications from TGE students and makes recommendations to Dr. Farb, the program director.

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

In exceptional cases, students are accepted into an MA degree program. The course requirements for MA candidates are 16 credits of formal coursework including Molecular and Translational Pharmacology, Molecular Neurobiology and Pharmacology, Current Topics in the Pharmacological Sciences, and one additional 2-credit advanced course (800-level) in Pharmacology. 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 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. Chobanian & Avedisian SOM 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.

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 for a terminal MA degree by the Graduate Education Committee. Students do not receive course credit for grades below B–, in accord with standards of Graduate Medical Sciences. Student progress is facilitated by a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) that meets each semester, after completion of the PhD Qualifying Examination, to provide feedback. The Chair of the DAC, in consultation with the student, submits a written report after each semester meeting and also discusses with the student progress in career planning.

Graduate Education Committee

A committee of five faculty and one graduate student manages most functions of the graduate training program. The graduate student representative is selected annually by the students. The committee meets regularly to review matters that relate directly to the program as described above and to make recommendations to the department chair.

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

For further information, contact the Departmental Manager of the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology & Biophysics at