Ph.D. Program
Prospective Students

Chairman's Welcome

We welcome your interest in Columbia's Department of Biological Sciences. The material included in these pages is designed to introduce you to our research and training programs and to guide you through the application process. If you need additional information, please contact:

Sarah Kim
Graduate Program Coordinator
1212 Amsterdam Ave.
Columbia University
600 Fairchild, MC 2402
New York, NY 10027
Tel: (212) 854-2313
Fax: (212) 865-8264

The research interests of the Department span a number of fields that are central to modern biology: cell & molecular, computational, developmental, structural biology & molecular biophysics, genetics & genomics, evolutionary biology, chemical biology, microbiology and neurobiology. As a student here you will have the opportunity to receive broadly based training in these areas and to develop research expertise through laboratory rotations and your thesis research. The intimate scale of the Department assures you of close contacts with the faculty and your fellow students while the location of the Department within the wide research community of New York City ensures the maximum possible exposure to exciting scientific developments. We have a steady flow of visitors from the US and abroad who enrich our offerings through seminars, discussions and informal meetings with research groups and faculty.

As a graduate student in the Department you will be encouraged to develop your talents as an independent scientist. All students begin with intensive exposure to biological sciences through training in our core course, which covers material related to all of the fields of biology mentioned above, and then move on to more specialized courses.

The Department occupies a modern research facility on the Morningside Heights Campus of Columbia University, a comfortable University neighborhood. The equipment available to you is state of the art, ranging from oligonucleotide synthesizers to electron microscopes. Core facilities for protein biochemistry, cell sorting, transgenic mice and X-ray crystallography are available. A well equipped computer facility is located within the Fairchild Building adjacent to the research laboratories. The new Science and Engineering Library the home to the Digital Science Center is located nearby in the new Northwest Corner Building.

Financial support for students in the program includes tuition and fee remission and a generous stipend together with University-subsidized housing; this support provides a comfortable standard of living. Nearly all students live within walking distance of the campus and the area around the university constitutes a pleasant student and faculty dominated community.

We welcome your interest in the Department and look forward to your application to join us as a graduate student.

Liang Tong
Chair, Department of Biological Sciences

Application for Admission

The Department of Biological Sciences considers applications from students intending to pursue research training leading to the Ph.D. Applicants should possess substantial undergraduate education in the biological, chemical, physical, computational or mathematical sciences. It is desirable to have had courses in organic and physical chemistry, physics, genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology, and at least one year of calculus. However, any outstanding applicant will be considered; deficiencies in background can be remedied while in graduate school. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required. A GRE Subject Test in biology, chemistry, computer science, or physics, is strongly recommended. For applicants from abroad whose native language is not English, the TOEFL examination must be taken.

Individuals who wish to apply to the Graduate Program in Biological Sciences should complete the application and fellowship forms enclosed in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences application packet. To begin the application process, go to the Apply Now section of our site. Individuals who are unable to submit a fully completed application to the Admissions Office should contact the department (see contact info. above) to discuss the application procedure.

Applicants with specific research interests may contact individual faculty members, whose telephone numbers can be obtained on the Faculty Research pages or by calling the Departmental Office (phone: (212)854-4581). Eligible applicants are strongly encouraged to apply for extramural support (e.g., National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships, Howard Hughes Fellowships) and should consult with the departmental graduate student adviser as early as possible in the application process.

The completed admission and fellowship applications should be submitted directly to the Admissions Office of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences by December 1-January 6 (please see the Apply Now page for the deadline information). When the completed application form is received by the Admissions Office, it is forwarded to the Department of Biological Sciences for review. The Graduate Committee of the Department evaluates each application using criteria of GRE scores (general and subject), grades, letters of recommendation, and statement of purpose. Each year selected applicants are invited to visit the Department the last week of February to speak further with our faculty about the graduate program and the applicant's personal statement. Admission decisions are reached by the end of March, and each applicant is informed of the status of her or his application by mid-April.

Graduate Training

Coursework and Seminars
The graduate program provides each student with a solid background in contemporary biology and an in-depth knowledge of one or more specific areas (molecular biology, genetics, structural biology, cell biology, developmental biology, neurobiology, and bioinformatics). The specific nature and scheduling of courses taken during the first two graduate years are determined by the student's consultation with the Graduate Student Adviser, taking into account the background and specific research interests of the student.

All first-year students take two core courses. The first, on Genetics and Molecular Biology, is given in the fall. The second is on Cell, Developmental, and Structural Biology as well as Neurobiology, Immunology, and Bioinformatics, and is given in the spring. Beginning in the first year, graduate students attend advanced seminar courses including the preresearch seminar, which is a forum for faculty-student research discussion. Important components of graduate education include the ability to analyze critically the contemporary research literature and to present such analyses effectively through oral and written presentations. Training in these skills occurs through advanced-level seminars and journal clubs . Students are required to take 3 elective courses in addition to the core courses taken as a first year.

Research seminars form an intrinsic part of the graduate training program. Each laboratory meets regularly to discuss ongoing research, and the entire department - faculty members, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows - retreats bi-annually to attend a mini-symposium focusing on research programs. An extremely active extramural seminar program brings two to three distinguished outside speakers a week to the department, and an endowed lecture series sponsors a major scholar for extended formal presentations and informal discussions with faculty and students. Ready access is also available to the large number of seminars held by other departments of Columbia University and other universities and research institutes of New York. In addition two active journal clubs, one on neurobiology and one on biochemistry and molecular biology, meet weekly.

Research Training
Students usually do laboratory rotations, on an informal basis, to sample the research approaches of one or more laboratories during the first year; by arrangement with individual faculty members, rotations may begin during the summer before first-year classes begin. At the end of the first year (although it can be earlier), choice of a dissertation sponsor is made after consultation between the student and potential faculty advisers, and intensive research begins. At this time, each student presents and defends an original research proposal. Each student is assigned a Ph.D. Advisory Committee made up of the student's sponsor and two other faculty members. The committee meets yearly to monitor progress towards completion of thesis research. The typical time interval between entry into the program and receipt of the Ph.D. is five to six years. Follow this link for a list of potential faculty thesis sponsors .

Experience in teaching is deemed an important and essential part of Ph.D. training. Two semesters are required for most students. Assignments include leading a recitation section and supervising a laboratory section. Extra credit is given for more demanding assignments. Students are given a short workshop in teaching technique at the start of this training. More information on teaching can be found in the Graduate Student Handbook .

Graduate Student Living

New York is one of the great cities of the world - an exciting place to live and study. Visit the major museums, at student rates - the Met, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney - but stop in also at the Morgan Library to see how you would decorate your study if you had $100 million after taxes. Go to Lincoln Center for the Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall, or chamber music at Alice Tully Hall, or opera at the Metropolitain. Discount tickets are available for many performances, or wait until summer, when the same programs come free to the city parks.

There is of course the theater: Broadway, Off-Broadway, and the so-called Off-Off-Broadway theater, which flourishes wherever three actors can find a room and a dozen folding chairs. There are modern dance companies, folk and ethnic dance companies, and five major ballet companies; there are two major opera companies, the Met and the New York City Opera, and each borough has its smaller companies; and as for film, New York is a permanent festival. Almost any film you might want to see, from the past or the present, is playing somewhere in the city this month.

Serious eating is also a part of the city's culture. The city is a large delicatessen, with sections for each of the world's cuisines. For under $10 you can dine superbly in Chinatown or be fed to exhaustion in Little Italy. Just south of campus there is good shopping and nightlife and a concentration of cheap and excellent restaurants.

The campus on Morningside Heights is located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan Island. The Heights is a pleasant and lively neighborhood, about four miles north of Midtown, situated on a scenic bluff (from which it takes its name) overlooking the Hudson River to the west and Morningside Park to the east. Virtually all students and most faculty live in the neighborhood, within easy walking distance of the campus. More detailed information on graduate student housing can be found by clicking here or by selecting "Housing" from the menu on the left-hand side of this page. The campus itself is spacious and still quite faithful to the original design, now almost one hundred years old, bythe famous architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. The Department of Biological Sciences is housed in the Sherman Fairchild Center for the Life Sciences. It is a modern facility, designed by an internationally famous architectural firm, Mitchell-Giurgola. Nearby is the University Physical Fitness Center, with two gymnasiums, two swimming pools, saunas, squash and handball courts, a running track, and other facilities. There are tennis courts in campus and in Riverside Park, a block away, and the park provides a pleasant environment for jogging.

Departmental Programs

The Department of Biological Sciences maintains research and teaching programs in molecular and cellular biology, neurobiology, developmental biology, structural and computational biology, and molecular biophysics. Within the Department of Biological Sciences, extensive interaction among individual research laboratories, informal journal clubs, and seminars contributes to a vigorous training program. Within the University, the Department maintains close ties with other basic science departments both on the Morningside and Health Sciences campuses. As of 1999, students in the Department can do their thesis research with selected faculty from the Health Sciences campus.

Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology, and Molecular Genetics
Current research interests of the faculty include the structure, function, and control of genes in prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells (bacteria, yeast, nematodes, flies, frogs, mice, and cultured human cells); regulation of subcellular RNA and protein trafficking; protein conformation as related to biological activity; mechanisms and regulation of transcription, mRNA splicing and polyadenylation; molecular immunology; signal transduction, from the cell surface to the nucleus; the multiple functions of protein phosphorylation; the assembly, sorting, and cycling of membranes; the genesis and function of organelles and cytoskeletal structures; and growth control and the molecular biology of cancer, including the function of oncogenes and tumor suppressors, such as p53.

The neurobiology group focuses on neuronal function and on cellular and molecular approaches to development of the nervous system. Research conducted in vertebrate and invertebrate systems includes genetics and developmental biology of nervous tissue; receptors, second messengers, and ion channels; behavioral neuroendocrinology; endocrine modulation of neuromuscular function; genesis of neuronal specificity and synaptic connections; and cell biology and physiology of olfactory and photoreceptors.

Developmental Biology
Genetic approaches to studying development were pioneered at Columbia University by Thomas Hunt Morgan and his illustrious students in "the fly lab" early this century. Drosophila remains a favored organism for developmental studies in this Department, but now shares this status with nematodes (C. elegans), frogs (Xenopus), leeches and mice. Research on pattern formation in Drosophila examines how polarity and position-dependent cell fates are generated by sub-cellular localization of RNAs, and by cell-cell signaling . Mechanisms of sex determination and how sex hormones influence development and behavior are being studied in Drosophila and Xenopus, respectively. The specification of particular neurons, how they arborize and form specific synaptic connections, and how they differentiate are being studied in the context of C. elegans touch cells, segmentally patterned leech neurons, olfactory neurons and cortical neurons in the mouse. The regulation of the cell cycle and of apoptosis in the immune system and other cells are also being studied by genetic means on whole mice. These varied developmental studies often focus on fundamental biochemical processes and are therefore complemented by other studies in the Department that employ cell culture and in vitro techniques, including crystallography, that address these issues. Two key areas that benefit from the convergence of genetic and biochemical approaches are signal transduction and transcriptional regulation.

Structural Biology & Molecular Biophysics
Current research interests of the faculty include signal transduction proteins, computational analysis of genome sequences and DNA microarray data, the structure, function and regulation of ion channels, molecular chaperone proteins, several enzymes of biological and medical importance, proteins involved in transmembrane transport, and components of the bacterial secretion apparatus. The focus of the research activities is on understanding the biological functions of these proteins in terms of their atomic structures, as well as their kinetic and thermodynamic properties. A special emphasis of the program is on the determination of protein structures by X-ray crystallography. State-of-the-art X-ray diffraction and high-speed computing facilities are available in the Department, and two major synchrotron X-ray sources are located within easy driving distance.

Computational and Systems Biology
Recent advances in biotechnology enable high throughput and parallel approaches to probe different viewpoints of the cell at a global scale. Data is accumulating at a rapid pace, creating opportunities to understand the workings of the cell from a systems perspective. Current interests of the faculty include regulation of gene expression, the function, organization and evolution of molecular networks, motif detection and modeling of protein-DNA interactions, how the cell performs computation, understanding post transcriptional regulation and signal transduction, how variation in the molecular network between cell types and individual manifest in phenotypic diversity and fitness. This track provides the cross interdisciplinary training required to address biological problems using tools from physics, computer science and engineering.

Joint Training in Biophysics
Faculty from three departments have coordinated their efforts for recruiting student interested in entering or pursuing studies in biophysics. The Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics have joined the Department of Biological Sciences in this coordinated effort. For a description of this program, click here .

Business Office

Department of Biological Sciences
500 Fairchild Center
Mail Code 2401
Columbia University
1212 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10027

Academic Office

Department of Biological Sciences
600 Fairchild Center
Mail Code 2402
Columbia University
1212 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, NY 10027
212 854-4581