Molecular Biophysics Program

Objectives

The Molecular Biophysics Graduate Program offers a vibrant environment for students interested in studying biology from a quantitative, physical perspective. The Program is highly interdisciplinary, comprising more than 30 faculty members with diverse backgrounds and interests, ranging from mathematics and theoretical physics to neurobiology and genetics. Using a wide range of biophysical techniques, including X-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, electron microscopy, light spectroscopy/microscopy, and computational modeling among others, these laboratories investigate in atomic detail how proteins and other macromolecules function individually or as part of complex biological systems. Neurotransmitter release, cytoskeletal dynamics, cellular signaling, nuclear transport, ion channels, transporters, photosensors, T-cell receptors, and G-proteins are among the many areas of interest.

A highly interactive atmosphere – catalyzed by Journal Clubs, an annual retreat, and the celebrated Molecular Biophysics Discussion Group seminar series – offers all members of the Program the opportunity to learn from each other and to gain expertise in many varied subjects, well beyond their own areas of research. Ultimately, the mission of the Program is to pro­vide students with conceptual tools and research experiences that will prepare them to apply the principles and techniques of the physi­cal sciences to biomedical problems.

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Special Requirements for Admission

In general, conditions for admission to the Pro­gram are good academic standing within the Division of Basic Science of the Graduate School and an interest in pursuing a research and train­ing program in molecular biophysics. Students with strong backgrounds in the physical sciences and mathematics will be well prepared to join the Program, but such backgrounds are not required.

Students ordinarily apply for formal admis­sion to the Program in the middle or the end of the fall semester, but are encouraged to parti­cipate in the Program informally at any time after admis­sion into the Division of Basic Science. It is not necessary that a student within the Program choose a dissertation research mentor who is a member of the faculty of the Program, provided the student has sound reasons for this choice.

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Curriculum

Biophysics is a field defined by its application of physical principles and techniques to investigation of key biological problems. Optimal training for a career in molecular biophysics includes exposure to the theoretical basis for physical properties and interactions of biological molecules, the technical approaches that are avail­able to investigate biological systems, and the results of studies in which biophysics has contrib­uted to an understanding of the biological char­acteristics of system behavior. The Molecular Biophysics Graduate Program includes course work in each of these three areas.

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Core Curriculum

The first-year Core Curriculum course, required of all stu­dents in the Division of Basic Science, offers training in the broad issues faced by contemporary biological science. This course provides four hours of course credit toward the minimum of 30 hours required for the first year. Students are also required to take two courses on Professionalism, Responsible Conduct of Research, and Ethics (2 credit hours).

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Advanced Courses

Course requirements and descriptions are listed on the Course Descriptions page. 

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Molecular Biophysics Journal Club and Discussion Group

The Molecular Biophysics Journal Club offers students an opportunity to keep abreast of recent research results in the literature, to sharpen critical acu­men, and to develop public-speaking skills. Every student in the Graduate Program is expected to attend the Journal Club and to participate actively. In addition, each student is required to present one journal article or work-in-progress per year.

Students also are strongly encouraged to attend meetings of the Molecular Biophysics Discussion Group and presentations of interest to biophysicists occurring in the numerous seminar series offered by UT Southwestern and its various basic science departments. The Molecular Bio­physics Discussion Group and the annual Molec­ular Biophysics Research Symposium provide forums for presentation of the students’ own research, as well as acquainting them with recent research results from other laboratories on cam­pus and from invited speakers.

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Qualifying Examination

Admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. requires that students prepare and defend a written research proposal, modeled on an NIH-R01 grant proposal. A student may choose a topic that is related to his or her own prospective dissertation research or may select an unrelated biophysical topic. The student is expected to write a hypo­thesis- or question-driven proposal. Students who choose to defend an invention or new method must devise suitable controls to demonstrate feasibility. Pro­posals based on anticipated dissertation research are expected to address fundamental issues; these may, in some cases, extend beyond those en­com­passed by the dissertation itself. Both the written proposal and the oral defense will be judged for clarity and originality of thought and for the degree of mastery of experimental design and analysis of data expected for a student at the end of the second year of Graduate School. During the oral examination, the student also is expected to respond to questions of general knowledge in molecular biophysics.

The ad hoc Examination Committee is com­posed of three faculty members, at least two of whom belong to the Molecular Biophysics Grad­uate Program. The student’s mentor is not eligible to serve on the Committee. Members of the Committee and the Committee Chair will be chosen by the Chair of the Molecular Biophysics Student Evalu­ation Committee in consultation with the stu­dent’s mentor. These choices are based primarily upon expertise in the field of study to be exam­ined.

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Dissertation Committee

Following successful completion of the qual­ifying examination, the student proposes a Dissertation Committee comprising at least four members of the faculty, at least two of them mem­bers of the Molecular Biophysics Graduate Pro­gram. The constitution of the Dissertation Com­mittee must be approved by the Program Chair.

Within 30 days after forming the Dissertation Committee, the student presents to the Committee a written summary of his or her proposed topic and preliminary research progress toward the project’s goals. This initial meeting generally involves a 30-minute oral presentation by the student, followed by discussion and suggestions from the members of the Committee.

Every student must hold at least one meeting of his or her Dissertation Committee each year. After the third year, meetings are held every six months. Additional meetings may be called at any time by the student or by the Committee. The Dissertation Committee monitors the student’s progress based on research accomplished, course grades, and Journal Club and other presentations.

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Dissertation Defense

A complete copy of the Dissertation must be approved by the Dissertation Committee before a public dissertation defense can be sched­uled. The defense is composed of a public lecture describing the main observations of the research, followed by an oral examination by the Disser­ta­tion Committee. Attendance during the oral examination is restricted to faculty of the Grad­uate School, and participation is restricted to the Examination Committee.

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