Degree Programs

Systems Biology

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, chemistry, 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.

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Admissions Requirements

The typical student has a strong background in one of the disciplines relevant to Systems Biology 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.

Financial Aid

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.

Degree Requirements


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 will meet with the class advisors to discuss their background and interests. Class advisors will assist each student in developing a personalized curriculum to complement the student's existing training.

Students are required to complete four science courses offered at either Harvard or MIT. A list of courses students commonly take is distributed to the students during orientation.

In addition to these four courses, systems biology first year students enroll in three courses that help prepare them for the practice of science.

SystBio212: Communication of Science. First year students will work collaboratively with faculty and one another on critical science communication skills including crafting graphics, writing fellowships, and giving oral presentations.

SystBio300: Introduction to Systems Biology. The course is an evening seminar featuring weekly lectures by Program faculty which serves to acquaint first year students with the major research themes of the program faculty and helps them decide on research rotations and evaluate potential dissertation advisors.

MedSci300: Conduct of Science. The course follows a discussion group format in which 8-12 students meet with a faculty member who leads discussions on the ethical and responsible conduct of research.

Lab Rotations

Students in the program are expected to perform two to four laboratory rotations before selecting a dissertation laboratory. This is to allow the student to explore different research areas, identify potential collaborators, and experience the environment in different research groups. The program does not set time limits on rotations, but most rotations are expected to be 4–12 weeks long.

Independent Research

After the first year, students may choose a single faculty member as their dissertation advisor, or may elect to initiate collaboration between two 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 March 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.

Dissertation Defense

The DAC, in consultation with the dissertation advisor, determines when it is time for a student to stop laboratory work and begin to write his or her dissertation. 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 examination committee.

Recent Systems Biology Dissertation Titles


  • Steven Hershman. "Personal Genomics and Mitchondrial Disease" (Mootha lab)
  • Dirk Landgraf. "Quantifying localizations and dynamics in single bacterial cells" (Paulsson lab)
  • Adam Palmer. "Gene-drug interactions and the evolution of antibiotic resistence" (Kishony lab)
  • Nick Stroustrup. "The C. elegans Lifespan Machine and its application to the temperature scaling of lifespan" (Fontana lab)
  • Ketki Verkhedkar. "Quantitative analysis of DNA repair and p53 in individual human cells" (Lahav lab)
  • Vikram Vijayan. "Circadian gene expression in cyanobacteria" (O’Shea lab)
  • Qingqing Wang. "Alternative splicing regulation in programmed cell death and neurological disorders: A systems biology approach" (Silver lab)


Participating Faculty