Virginia Tech will debut a new interdisciplinary doctoral program in molecular and cellular biology beginning in fall 2018. 

Students coming into the program, which has faculty members from six departments and research programs across the Blacksburg campus and in Roanoke, may choose research projects from four broad categories: cell signaling and cancer, inflammation and immunity, microbiology, and neurobiology.

While completing introductory coursework during their first year, students will rotate through labs in each category and then choose a research group to join. They may find themselves immersed in fields as diverse as how the microbiome influences the brain in times of stress to how cellular noise — or natural variations in cell composition — can lead to certain forms of cancer.

The program is a "grassroots" effort, according to co-director Silke Hauf, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Biocomplexity Institute Fellow. Fralin Life Science Institute provided seed funding to get the program off the ground.

“We wanted to be able to offer students a broad foundation in cell and molecular biology with a strong research component,” said Hauf. “We think this sort of cross-disciplinary training will position them well when they graduate.”

Currently, approximately 30 faculty member with more than $20 million in external funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Defense, and several private foundations are affiliated with the program. 

The student’s official degree will be in the department or college of the faculty member with whom they choose to work, which include animal and poultry science; biochemistry; biological sciences; biomedical and veterinary sciences; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; and the School of Neuroscience.

Faculty from all these departments have been involved in designing the program. In the future, the molecular and cellular biology program plans to rotate leadership positions to stay innovative - following in the footsteps of other successful Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs on the Virginia Tech campus.

The goal is also for the first cohort of students to help shape the program, but Hauf and co-director Michelle Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech, are already planning ways to build community, including monthly working lunches and yearly poster symposia. 

“Our goal is to build a program that engages both students and their faculty mentors and creates a tight-knit community united by a broad interest in molecular and cellular biology,” said Olsen.

Applications for fall 2018 will be accepted through Feb. 1.

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