With a solid foundation in place, UC was already well positioned for the current rise of systems biology. Now, with a three-year, $433,000 training grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the university is poised to take a national leadership role.
Systems biology is a holistic approach that uses interdisciplinary methods and computational tools such as mathematical modeling to integrate the study of complex interactions within biological systems. These approaches benefit researchers using any of the modern research tools that generate massive data sets (for example, the many modes of gene expression profiling, high-throughput biological assays and high-resolution and live tissue microscopy).
UC’s Systems Biology and Physiology Graduate Program, founded in 2006 and based in the molecular and cellular physiology department, was the first such program in the Midwest. Originated by Nelson Horseman, PhD, and now under the direction of Yana Zavros, PhD, it comprises 15 students with about 60 faculty members available across multiple disciplines.
"The program focuses on training graduate students to approach science using an interdisciplinary approach,” says Zavros. "We’re trying to train future scientists to address physiologic questions using more broad discovery-based approaches.”
That was one of the aspects of the program that attracted Amy Engevik, a PhD graduate student in Zavros’ lab whose research focuses on mechanisms of ulcer wound healing and gastric cancer.
"By joining the systems biology and physiology program, I was exposed to a number of different research areas and gained new insight into complex scientific methods and technologies,” she says. "This gave me the opportunity to choose a lab and project that best suited my interests and which I really enjoyed studying.”
"Our knowledge of living systems has outgrown the conventional models for biomedical education at the graduate level,” says Marshall Montrose, PhD, professor and chair of the department of molecular and cellular physiology. "The application of isolated expertise can no longer sustain adequate research progress in an era when total information accumulates at a much faster rate than the classic methods from individual disciplines can effectively utilize.”
Montrose was notified earlier this year that UC’s Advanced Multidisciplinary Training Program for Systems Biology, a proposed two-year training program designed to prime researchers to tackle complex mechanisms of human disease using cross-disciplinary approaches, was approved for the training grant. He will serve as the program’s co-director along with Jaroslaw Meller, PhD, an associate professor in the department of environmental health.
"The systems biology and physiology graduate programs and the training grant program are designed to be largely independent,” Montrose says. "While there are overlapping goals with the systems biology and physiology graduate program, the big difference is that the training grant has a wider purview—it gives us an opportunity to recruit students into this kind of training from a wide variety of STEM programs at the university.”
The training program will involve 33 faculty members and selected pre-doctoral trainees matriculated into 14 degree-granting PhD programs, Montrose says. Selected faculty members from those PhD programs will participate as mentors in the training program, with mentors identified as biological-, theoretical- or interdisciplinary-oriented scientists. Students will be co-mentored, with one mentor from an experimental background and the other from a theoretical and/or computational background.
Christian Hong, PhD, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology, is identified as one of the interdisciplinary faculty. Last year, a team he leads—which includes faculty from UC’s mathematical sciences department—received a four-year, $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense for investigations into circadian rhythms that could lead to enhanced understanding of disease treatments, trauma care and human combat performance.
Montrose points out that the training grant program is receiving significant institutional support from the College of Medicine, which will enhance the number of students that the program can fully support for tuition and stipend. There will be four training grant slots per year, with students admitted after first being accepted into one of the participating PhD programs.
"As part of enhancing the field of systems biology here, the university has also offered recurring dollars that will allow us to have sustainable recruiting of faculty,” Montrose adds. "That’s extremely gratifying, because sustainable, predictable dollars for recruiting are difficult to find.”
Inquiries about the Systems Biology and Physiology Graduate Program should be directed to Zavros at 513-558-2421 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Inquiries about the Advanced Multidisciplinary Training Program for Systems Biology should be directed to Cheryl Holly at 513-558-5636 or email@example.com.