At its quarterly meeting earlier this week, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors approved a resolution to create a new doctor of philosophy degree in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health.

This is the first major life science program emanating from the university’s most recent strategic plan, A Plan for a New Horizon.  

“We have assembled a critical mass of exceptional faculty members to solve society’s most intractable health problems,” said Mark G. McNamee, senior vice president and provost at Virginia Tech. “Because of its array of cross-disciplinary, intellectual talent, Virginia Tech is positioned to offer this premier, new doctoral program in Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health. This is a new approach to train biomedical and health scientists that can be achieved only by a top-tier research university. We are confident that our faculty and the graduates of this program will make discoveries and deliver vital new diagnostics, treatments, and cures.”

The interdisciplinary program will emphasize the concept of translational medicine – the transformation of scientific discoveries into diagnostics, therapeutics, and health-promoting behaviors and policies.

“Even with the considerable progress and investment in biomedical research over the past several decades, improvements in health have not kept pace with the promise of science,” said Michael Friedlander, associate provost for health sciences at Virginia Tech, who will oversee the program. “There is a critical need for translational researchers who can accelerate the transformation of fundamental biological discoveries into new approaches to prevent, diagnose, treat, and cure disease.”

While such acceleration is necessary, Friedlander added, it will not be sufficient to close the nation’s health gap. “If we are going to reduce health care costs, which currently account for 18 percent of our GDP, or almost 3 trillion dollars a year,” he said, “we must also incorporate leading-edge science to inform healthier behaviors and more rational, scientifically grounded policies for individuals, populations, and health delivery systems.”

The new doctoral program will be the only one in Virginia to feature such a wide range of biomedical and health-related subjects, particularly in such an integrated fashion, with students delving into multiple levels of inquiry and perspectives in their education and research. The program will offer six focus areas: cancer; development, aging, and repair; health implementation science; immunity and infectious disease; metabolism and cardiovascular science; and neuroscience.

The program is expected to matriculate its first class of students in the fall of 2014, pending approval by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, or SCHEV. Formal course instruction will take place at Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg and Roanoke facilities, with some use of interactive videoconferencing capabilities. Students from diverse educational backgrounds – including physical and life sciences, engineering, computation, and behavioral and social sciences – will work together to learn about health and disease processes, using case presentations to understand the full complexity of health challenges.

“Courses will cover a range of levels of inquiry, from molecules to individuals to populations and policies,” said Friedlander. “The program will offer exciting new opportunities to explore how translational discoveries are adopted, integrated, and applied in health care. Students will also learn to incorporate perspectives on cost, delivery, and policy implementation into their research.”

Virginia Tech faculty from 17 departments in seven colleges and six institutes and centers worked closely with Friedlander and the program director, Audra Van Wart, to develop the curriculum. The participating faculty will constitute a Faculty of Health Sciences, which will serve as the academic home for the program. The program will be administered through the Virginia Tech Graduate School.

Several national organizations – including the National Institutes of Health, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology – have recently called for innovative interdisciplinary and translational programs to train the next generation of leaders in biomedical science to guide health research in academia, industry, government, the military, and health systems.

“Our program will help doctoral students grow into bold, innovative researchers who are empowered to address the complex interplay of factors that affect human health,” said Friedlander. “Their broad perspective will help them translate discoveries into new approaches to encourage health, prevent and treat disease, and save money for investment in society's other pressing needs.”

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.