Introduction to Program
Systems biology aims to explain how higher level properties of complex biological systems arise from the interactions among their parts. This new field requires a fusion of concepts from many disciplines, including biology, computer science, applied mathematics, physics and engineering.
Through coursework and collaborative research, we aim to enable students to combine experimental and theoretical approaches to develop physical and quantitative models of biological processes. Students will be introduced to the tools that are now available, and to important unsolved problems in biology that may now be possible to address using quantitative and theoretical approaches.
For more information, please visit http://sysbio.harvard.edu/phd.
The typical student has a strong background in one of the disciplines relevant to Systems Biology (such as biology, mathematics, engineering, physics, chemistry and computer science) and a strong interest in interdisciplinary research. Although cross training is not required, many of the students admitted have had some experience in biology and some exposure to quantitative or theoretical approaches.
Online submission of the application is required. Please refer to the GSAS Admissions Page for further information on applying.
A number of candidates will be invited to interview in late January or early February. Final decisions concerning admission are made by the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the candidates are notified by letter from the Admissions Office.
Combined MD-PhD Program
Students admitted to Harvard Medical School as candidates for the MD degree may also apply for admission to the Systems Biology program in order to earn a PhD degree in systems biology.
This program may be of particular interest to prospective medical students with a strong theoretical background and to students enrolled in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.
All students accepted into the program are awarded full support, including a stipend, full tuition, and health fees. Students are encouraged to apply for external fellowships, such as those administered by the National Science Foundation, National Defense Science and Engineering Fellowship, and National Institutes of Health.
The class advisors will lead a week-long orientation for incoming students at the end of August. The orientation will include a set of lectures and activities that will introduce students to the many resources at and around Harvard and will answer their questions regarding research, academics and the graduate program. Students will also be paired with a senior graduate student mentor during the orientation.
Incoming students are assigned to two advisors, generally from different disciplines, who are available to help plan the student’s initial program of graduate study. Students are required to take SB300 Introduction to Systems Biology, MedSci300 Conduct of Science, and four additional courses chosen in consultation with their faculty advisors. Five formal courses are currently offered by Program faculty and a wide variety of courses taught at Harvard and MIT are available. Additionally, an informal summer course is offered for incoming students during the month of August that introduces a range of experimental techniques, theoretical/computational tools and programming languages.
(1) Dynamic and Stochastic Processes in Cells SB200
Rigorous introduction to (i) dynamical systems theory as a tool to understand molecular and cellular biology (ii) stochastic processes in single cells, using tools from statistical physics and information theory.
(2) Principles of Animal Development from a Systems Perspective SB201
Intensive and critical analysis of systems approaches to circuits and principles controlling pattern formation and morphogenesis in animals. Students develop their own ideas and present them through mentored “chalk talks” and other interactive activities.
(3) Biologically Inspired Molecular Engineering SB204
A course focusing on the rational design, construction, and applications of nucleic acid- and protein-based synthetic molecular machinery and programmable molecular systems. Students are mentored to produce substantial midterm and final group design projects.
(4) Communication of Science SB212
Students will work collaboratively with faculty and one another on critical science communication skills including crafting graphics, writing fellowships, and giving oral presentations.
(5) Introduction to Systems Biology Research SB300
Introductory lectures by Systems Biology Program members. Weekly one-hour lectures introduce the research areas of faculty performing research in systems biology.
Students in the program are expected to take two to four laboratory rotations before selecting a dissertation project. This is to allow the student to explore different research areas, identify potential collaborators, and experience the environment in different research groups (both experimental and theoretical), rather than to accomplish a research project. The Higher Degrees in Systems Biology program does not set time limits on rotations, but most rotations are expected to be 4-12 weeks long.
After the first year students may choose a single faculty member as their dissertation advisor, or may elect to initiate a collaboration between two or more labs. Subject to Program approval, students may choose advisors from any science department at Harvard, including the research departments of the 11 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals.
Preliminary Qualifying Examination
The purpose of the examination is to ensure that the student is prepared to embark on dissertation research. The examination is given in two phases. The first phase must be completed by June 1 of the student’s first year, and is intended to evaluate the student’s progress in acquiring competence in mathematical and/or computational approaches. Students will formulate a question related to any problem in biology and devise a mathematical or computational approach to addressing it. Results of the project will be presented in a short written summary and orally. Phase two must be completed by the end of January of the student’s second year. Students will prepare and defend an original research proposal related to the student’s proposed dissertation research.
Dissertation Advisory Committee
After completing the Qualifying Exam, students will be required to meet once a year with a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) consisting of their advisor(s) and three additional faculty. The role of the DAC is to assist the student in defining the dissertation project, review scientific progress, offer critical evaluation, suggesting extension or modification of objectives, arbitrate differences of opinion between the student and the advisor if they arise, and decide when the work accomplished constitutes a dissertation.
After completing the Qualifying Exam, students will be required to meet once a year with a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) consisting of their advisor(s) and three additional faculty. The DAC and the student will meet and discuss the proposal, and the student will receive feedback, advice and suggestions from Committee members. This should help refine the student’s ideas about their dissertation project and define the scope, direction and overall soundness of the idea.
The dissertation defense is comprised of two components: the first is a public presentation made to the department and community as a whole; the second is a private defense and examination before the student's dissertation advisory committee.
The candidate must provide copies of the completed (unbound) dissertation to members of their committee and the Graduate Programs Officerat least two weeks in advance of the dissertation defense. Electronic copies mau be submitted. Detailed requirements on the dissertation are publish in The Form of the PhD Dissertation, which is available online or in the Graduate Office.
Recent Systems Biology Dissertation Titles
Bruno Afonso. “Microbial control of space and time” (Silver lab)
Yifat Merbl. “Ubiquitin and Ubl modification profiling in mitosis” (Kirschner lab)
Remy Chait. “Selection on antibiotic resistance in multi-stress environments” (Kishony lab)
Jean-Baptiste Michel. “Quantitative aspects of evolution” (Kishony and Nowak labs)
Bjorn Millard. “Adaptive informatics for multifactorial and high-content biological data” (Sorger lab)
Hsiao-Chung Huang. “Life versus death decisions during mitosis” (Mitchison lab)
Peiling Tsou. “AMPK, an engergy stress sensor and beyond” (Cantley lab)
Jake Wintermute. “Optimality and Plasticity In Metabolism” (Silver lab)
Martin Wuehr. “Spatial Organization of Large Cells” (Mitchison lab)