Virginia Tech has launched its interdisciplinary doctoral program in molecular and cellular biology with an inaugural class of seven impressive students from diverse backgrounds with extensive research experience.

The new students in the program, which has faculty members from six departments and research programs across the Blacksburg and Roanoke campuses, will choose to concentrate on research from one of four broad categories: cell signaling and cancer, inflammation and immunity, microbiology, and neurobiology.

Silke Hauf and Michelle Olsen, co-directors of the molecular and cellular biology program, or MCB, have designed a program that offers students a broad foundation along with a strong research component.

Students will rotate through three labs during their first semester while completing introductory coursework and, at the end of the semester, they will choose a research group to join. They may find themselves involved in research as diverse as how biological mechanisms contribute to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, or how the spirochetal bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease.

“The MCB program is a ‘grassroots’ effort. We have brought together this critical mass of molecular and cellular biologists from diverse research areas who are invested in training and supporting our students,” said Olsen, an associate professor in the College of Science's School of Neuroscience

The Fralin Life Science Institute provided seed funding to get the program off the ground and continues to provide support. All the contributing departments and the College of Science have invested money to support the program as well.

Approximately 40 faculty members with external funding from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Defense, and several private foundations are currently affiliated with the program. 

The student’s official degree will be in the department or college of the faculty member with whom they choose to work, which includes animal and poultry science; biochemistry; biological sciences; biomedical and veterinary sciences; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; and the School of Neuroscience.

“As director of the School of Neuroscience, I am delighted with the successful launch of the MCB program, which brings together scientists from a variety of disciplines including Neuroscience. MCB exemplifies the cross-disciplinary team spirit that makes transformational science possible," said Harald Sontheimer, the I.D. Wilson Chair and Professor and executive director of the Virginia Tech School of Neurosciences. "The quality of the inaugural class of students is outstanding, and I am hosting two students for rotations to study the role of the extracellular matrix in regulating neuronal activity."

Poster session
MCB poster session and social

Hauf and Olsen have worked hard to plan ways to build community, including monthly working lunches and yearly poster symposia. They arranged for the first cohort of students to meet with Karen DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate education, for a welcome breakfast and to learn more about the graduate student community at Virginia Tech.

“I think it was great for the students to learn directly from Dean DePauw about how much the Graduate School values and fosters an inclusive community and how it promotes transdisciplinary education. Dean DePauw has been very supportive of our new program, which we are grateful for,” said Hauf, who is an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and a Biocomplexity Institute Fellow.

Students also met with MCB faculty for a poster session and social to learn more about faculty research. This event helped the students finalize their rotation selections.

“The poster session was crowded. It was fun to see faculty and students from six different departments on campus interacting and discussing their science. This is exactly what we want to achieve with this program” said Hauf.

Aaron Brock, of Palmyra, Virginia, began his undergraduate career at a community college in Charlottesville and graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in microbiology. He is excited to be part of the first cohort and help shape the MCB program.  

“I knew I wanted to come to Virginia Tech since middle school — at that time I wanted to become an anatomical veterinary pathologist. As an undergraduate, I loved the sense of community I found at Virginia Tech, and it seemed like I was where I was supposed to be,” said Brock.  

Brock found that he was passionate about microbiology research and completed a research project in Birgit Scharf’s lab on a collection of genes in Sinorhizobium meliloti, a nitrogen-fixing bacterium that locates and forms a symbiotic relationship with the crop legume alfalfa. Scharf is an associate professor of biological sciences and steering committee member of the MCB program.

Brock is excited by the interdisciplinary nature of the MCB graduate program and plans to rotate in labs with research areas different from his undergraduate experience so he can learn about new techniques in cellular and molecular biology.

Beatriz Torres, of Las Vegas, Nevada, is thrilled to join the inaugural class of the MCB program. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a degree in psychology with an emphasis on neuroscience. As an undergraduate, she conducted a neuroscience research project where she studied the role of glial cells, specifically astrocytes, on stress-induced depressive-like behavior.

“I like the idea of being part of a program that is new and the excitement that comes with it; I appreciate the interdisciplinary approach the MCB program is taking. Members of our new cohort have differing research interests and diverse points of view, so we can learn from each other. I already feel a sense of belonging and community in the program,” said Torres.  

Torres is interested in pursuing a neurobiology concentration and continuing her research on astrocytes and glial cells, as well as exploring other research areas in her rotations.

MCB faculty and the first cohort of students will continue to shape the program. Clayton Caswell, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, studies how the bacteria Brucella causes infection in humans and animals.

“I have had the pleasure to work with the other members of the steering committee to develop the new MCB program and to help foster the university-wide community of individuals studying various aspects of molecular and cellular biology. A lot of work has gone into the development of this new program, and I am very much looking forward to watching the MCB program grow in the future,” said Caswell. 

The program plans to rotate leadership positions in the future to stay innovative, as is usually done with other successful Interdisciplinary graduate education programs on the Virginia Tech campus.

Applications for the fall 2019 molecular and cellular biology program will be accepted through Feb. 1, 2019.