The molecular and cellular biology graduate program, or MCB, at Virginia Tech offers students the opportunity to get involved in research as diverse as how biological mechanisms contribute to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, and how circadian rhythms can provide insight into cancer treatment.

Virginia Tech launched this new interdisciplinary program in 2018. The first, second, and third cohort are made up of impressive students from diverse backgrounds with extensive research experience, and the program is now recruiting for its fourth cohort.

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

Silke Hauf and Michelle Olsen, co-directors of MCB, have designed this program so that it offers students a broad foundation along with a strong research component.

“The MCB program continues to thrive. We now have over 50 molecular and cellular biologists from diverse research areas who are invested in training and supporting our students. Students from our first cohort have already published in high-profile journals and have presented at several international meetings,” said Hauf, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Students rotate through three labs during their first semester while completing introductory coursework and, at the end of the semester, they choose a research group to join.

“One of the main things that drew me to both Virginia Tech and the MCB program was the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies and collaborations between different fields. Something I really appreciate now that I’m at Virginia Tech are the resources available to help me develop skills that will make me a better scientist as a whole, like opportunities to attend a variety of seminars, assistance with scientific writing, and learning how to communicate science to a variety of audiences,” said Becca Salgado, a second-year graduate student in the program.

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute provided seed funding to get the program off the ground and continues to provide support. The contributing departments and the College of Science are investing in the program as well.

Faculty members affiliated with the program receive 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.

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.

“Our goal with MCB was to generate a community of trainees with a common interest in molecular and cellular biology across a range of disciplines. When we host a poster session, a ‘lunch and learn,’ or science presentations, the MCB students often bring their entire lab - extending a sense of community beyond our program,” said Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science.

Second-year student Becca Salgado joined the lab of Nisha Duggal in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The Duggal lab focuses on West Nile, Zika, and Usutu virus research. Salgado joined the Duggal lab due to her interest in emerging infectious diseases, particularly flaviviruses, and her background in virology research. Salgado’s projects will focus primarily on the molecular basis of Usutu virus pathogenesis and the innate immune response to Usutu in an avian model.

Second-year student Lata Chaunsali joined Mike Fox's lab in Roanoke. She is the first MCB student to be based in Roanoke at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

“I have been working at Virginia Tech for almost four years. I interacted with many scientists during that period and got inspiration from them to continue research. I joined the MCB program because I think the scientists at Virginia Tech are working on the most fundamental questions in different areas using the most cutting-edge techniques. I also liked the MCB curriculum, which has a comparatively shorter rotation to other graduate programs, and was most suitable for me,” said Chaunsali.

Researchers in the Fox Laboratory focus on the visual system in their efforts to uncover mechanisms that drive the initial targeting of synapses. The scientists are interested in understanding how synapses are formed between retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the output neurons of the retina, and target neurons within the brain.

Second-year student Jing Ju chose to join Michelle Theus’ lab in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine after his rotations. “Dr. Theus is a specialist in brain injury. Our laboratory employs a diverse range of molecular and cellular techniques to investigate the mechanisms underlying remodeling of blood vessels after a stroke. And also, our research group is a supportive, professional, and collaborative team. Thus, the Theus’ lab can give me a comprehensive scientific training for studying brain injury and neurogenesis,” said Ju.

Lata Chaunsali
Lata Chaunsali. Photo courtesy of Lata Chaunsali.
Jing Ju
Jing Ju. Photo courtesy of Jing Ju.

Hauf and Olsen have built a thriving community that includes summer research talks, monthly working lunches, and yearly poster symposia. The “Lunch and Learn” talks focus on various topics, such as career development, scientific writing, stress management, and elevator pitches.

“One of my favorite memories from my first year as an MCB student were the 'Lunch and Learn' talks we had; it gave all the MCB students from different labs a chance to come together and learn something new. I really enjoyed the talk regarding opportunities for scientists outside academia, such as employment in industry and government research,” said Salgado.

The program plans to rotate leadership positions in the future to stay innovative, as is usually done with other successful Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs at Virginia Tech.

Applications for the fall 2021 molecular and cellular biology program will be accepted through Feb. 1, 2021, with a priority deadline on Dec. 1, 2020.