UCSF Wins HHMI Award for Interdisciplinary Graduate Education

By Wallace Ravven, UCSF News Services | December 1, 2005

UCSF's Integrated Program in Complex Biological Systems has been awarded a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to initiate fundamental changes in the way PhD scientists are trained.

As biomedical science becomes increasingly interdisciplinary - relying increasingly on the physical and computational sciences -- educators are looking for new ways to train tomorrow's biomedical investigators to work effectively across disciplinary lines.

UCSF is among 10 universities selected to help lead the way, each receiving a $1 million grant from HHMI. The 10 were selected from among 132 institutions applying for the support.

The three-year grants will help faculty develop innovative graduate education programs to produce a cadre of scientists with the knowledge and skills to conduct research at the interface between the biomedical, physical, and computational sciences.

Director of the new UCSF program is David Agard, PhD, professor of biochemistry and scientific director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research, known as QB3, on the UCSF Mission Bay campus.

"I firmly believe that we are witnessing the beginnings of a startling convergence of biology with the physical, mathematical and engineering sciences," Agard said. "This convergence is critical for understanding the extraordinary complexity of cellular function as well as the processes whereby the behavior of individual cells is coordinated to form tissues and organisms. Applying the tools of the physical sciences and engineering to tackle complex biological problems will enable a highly sophisticated technology devoted to the engineering of biological materials and systems."

A fundamental challenge, Agard said, is bringing such disparate approaches to bear on a biological problem. One reason that UCSF has done so well has been its long history and established culture of powerful collaborations. However, a key to this success is training young scientists to be simultaneously conversant in the languages of biology, math, physics and engineering.

"Because the challenges are as much sociological as they are didactic," he added, QB3 scientists have begun developing an entirely new graduate training program -- the integrative program in Complex Biological Systems."

Co-directors of the new program are Joe DeRisi, PhD, professor of biochemistry, QB3 faculty affiliate and an HHMI investigator at UCSF; and Sarah Nelson, PhD, professor of radiology and director of the Surbeck Laboratory of Advanced Imaging at QB3.

Read more at Wallace Ravven, UCSF News Services