University of Chicago receives $1 million from Hughes Institute to support novel graduate program

December 15, 2005

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded a $1 million grant to the University of Chicago to support a graduate program in biophysical dynamics and self-organization, directed by Tobin Sosnick, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and the Institute of Biophysical Dynamics (IBD) at Chicago.

The new program will train students for the ever-increasing amount of collaboration across the sciences. With only 10 to 15 students admitted annually, and by incorporating a laboratory class the entire first year, students will learn techniques from across the biological, physical, and computer sciences.

Sosnick recognized the necessity of offering a cross-discipline degree, because scientific queries have been growing increasingly complex--requiring that biologists, computer scientists, physicists and chemists team up to find answers.

"I don't know of anything like this in the country," he said, adding that he hopes the unique curriculum will help physical scientists begin to learn how to identify meaningful biological issues, and let students in all disciplines "get their feet wet" and learn to work together in the lab faster.

Sosnick's own mixed science background gives him perspective. During the mid-1980s, he was trained as a low-temperature physicist at Harvard University. Currently, he is working in Chicago's biochemistry department and the IBD, and regularly collaborates with professors in chemistry on his research--protein and RNA folding.

"This was well-timed. It was a confluence of events, stars aligning," Sosnick said, referring to the simultaneous award announcement and the recent opening of Chicago's newest research facility, the Center for Integrative Science. The innovative building, along with the IBD, was created with the intention of bringing together physical and biological scientists in hopes that the proximity will lead to increased collaborations across divisional lines.

"From its conception, one of the primary objectives of the institute has been the creation of a cross-disciplinary graduate program at the interface of the physical and the biological sciences," said chemistry professor Stephen Kent, IBD director and co-director of the grant. "Such a program is essential to recruit the most outstanding graduate students, as well as to recruit and retain outstanding interdisciplinary faculty."

Once the HHMI funding for the new graduate program runs out after its three-year span, the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (one of the National Institutes of Health) plans to take over to secure support, according to HHMI President Thomas Cech. The groups decided to partner together on this project noting the importance of cross-disciplinary research in each of their specific areas.

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