New PhD program integrates physical, biological sciences

Students in biophysics curriculum will work under two advisers, with support from Howard Hughes Medical Institute

September 11, 2007

With a $1 million award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a new curriculum and the initial class of students lined up for fall quarter, the University of Chicago PhD program in biophysics and synthetic biology is ready to start its first year.

The program, which provides a joint degree from the Biological Sciences and the Physical Sciences divisions, will provide a path for graduate students to study interdisciplinary science.

"We're training students who will be able to walk in both worlds," said program director Tobin Sosnick, PhD

Unlike many graduate programs, in which students are limited to one academic area, the biophysical sciences program requires students to interact with two mentors, two committees and two labs. In addition, students in the program will be "interface scholars"--part of the academic and research community with opportunities to special seminars and travel--at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute because of its continuing support to the university, said Adam Hammond, PhD, the curriculum director for the biophysical sciences PhD program.

Hammond, who describes the program as "new and considerably different," is part of what makes the program unique. He has created new courses and will oversee the students during their time at Chicago, including core first-year classes that integrate laboratory techniques of biology, physics and chemistry. Four students will begin this fall, all with backgrounds in physics and biophysics.

Lawrence Uricchio, one of the incoming students, found the program's Web page while researching graduate schools. The Connecticut native graduated from Carleton College with a degree in physics but has worked at an immunology lab during the two years since graduation.

For Uricchio, the biophysics program seemed unusual but appealing. "I would like to work on a biological system in a more quantitative way than I have at this point," he said. While being one of the first students in the program is "a little intimidating," he said he's looking forward to the perks of being at the University of Chicago.

"Clearly, the resources are there," Uricchio said. "My impression was that everyone was working together."
Forty-seven faculty members from a variety of departments--including biology, physics, chemistry and medicine--will teach classes, mentor students, supervise research and act as thesis advisers.

Administrators plan to expand the student base to include chemists, engineers, computer scientists and physicists. They also plan to increase the number of incoming students, eventually accepting about 12 students a year, Hammond said, for a total of approximately 55 students in the program at one time.

For more information, visit http://biophysics.uchicago.edu.

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