Stretching boundaries for training new biophysicistsBy Steve Koppes
The University has developed a recipe for creating first-rate interdisciplinary biophysical scientists. Two of the key ingredients: take the very best physical sciences undergraduates, then put them through an experimental biology wringer during their first year as graduate students.
These students receive 600 hours of intensive interdisciplinary training under the supervision of Adam Hammond, the program’s curriculum director.
“No other university or program that I know of has this level of dedication to the first-year curriculum,” said Hammond, Ph.D.,‘01. “We are hoping that this will produce scientists who are conversant across disciplines, can combine the best methods from multiple fields and sometimes think in completely new ways.”
The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering harbors similar hopes. One of the National Institutes of Health, NIBIB has just awarded a $2 million grant to the University to provide stipends and tuition support for students in the innovative Biophysical Sciences program.
The unusual terms of the grant mean that graduate students with degrees in physics and chemistry will receive NIH support. “This is significant for their future careers as interdisciplinary scientists,” Hammond said.
Tobin Sosnick, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, conceived the rigorous practical training course “From Synthesis to Measurement and Analysis,” which meets 50 hours a week for a month before the Autumn Quarter and 20 hours a week during the Autumn and Winter quarters.
“We learn all the ways that real experimental science is different from college lab science—primarily that any experiment is more likely to ‘fail’ than to go as planned, and why we make progress anyway,” Hammond said.
Other key ingredients of the program include its dual-mentorship structure and its authority to grant degrees. Most institutions that have interdisciplinary programs offer a specialization or augmentation to an existing degree program. The Biophysical Sciences program grants its own degrees, having run the gauntlet of approval from the divisions of Physical and Biological sciences.
Other institutions offer some form of dual mentorship, but at Chicago both mentors invest equally in time, costs and laboratory space for the student. “This isn’t one true mentor and one person to chat with occasionally,” Hammond said.
The Biophysical Sciences program provides the graduate training component of an initiative that began with the establishment of the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics in 1998. The institute provided an administrative home for interdisciplinary scientific collaboration. The Gordon Center for Integrative Sciences then put many of the scientists in these collaborations under one roof.
The NIBIB grant is the third the University has obtained to support interdisciplinary graduate training in the physical and biological sciences in recent years. The first, also for $2.5 million, came in 2001 from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
Next came a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. This grant led to the establishment of the Biophysical Sciences program, with Sosnick as director. The program enrolled its first four students in 2007, and four more in 2008.
“We’re competing with other top schools for these students,” Hammond said, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Francisco.
Ernesto Vargas was one of the first four students to join the program. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Vargas said he chose Chicago for the opportunity to learn the latest biophysical techniques.
Vargas conducts laboratory studies on membrane proteins with Francisco Bezanilla, the Lillian Eichelberger Cannon Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and Benoit Roux, Professor in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.
“I’m trained as a physicist, and here they allowed me to come into the laboratories and learn the biological techniques, understanding that I had no previous experience in this,” Vargas said.