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Department of biochemistry and Molecular biology

Graduate Training Program

Lipid Research Group
Faculty and Student Credentials

Ph.D Program
Ph.D. Program Requirements
M.S. Program
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The Department of Biochemistry looks for graduate students who are creative and willing to take a chance in exploring and answering challenging questions.

To our Faculty, mentoring graduate students with the incentive to innovate, discover, and challenge tradition is considered the very best application of the resources of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Students in our Department present a seminar once a year, and they are encouraged to attend and present their data in national and/or international meetings.

Graduate students in the department currently receive a stipend of $23,000 a year. This stipend is for twelve months and allows for full-time graduate study. Satisfactory progress toward the Ph.D. or M.D./Ph.D. degree is the only requirement for yearly renewal of the stipend. The Department is primarily located on the 5th and 7th floors of the Basic Science Building, which is immediately adjacent to the Education Center/Library Building.

The Department of Biochemistry offers an interdisciplinary research program with a wide variety of disciplines, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer biology, pharmacology, endocrinology, inflammatory and infectious diseases, immunology, and bioinformatics.

In addition, the Department of Biochemistry has exceptional strength in the investigation of bioactive lipids, including chemistry, biochemistry, structure and function. The lipid research group at MUSC is considered a premier group in sphingolipids and one of the major groups in lipids in general and it is based in the Department of Biochemistry. In addition to multiple R01s, the lipid team at MUSC has obtained recognition and funding as the NIH Center of Biomedical Excellence (COBRE) in Lipidomics and Pathobiology. In addition, it holds a program project investigating sphingolipids in cancer biology and therapy, and serves as the Lipidomics Core for several other program projects based at other institutions. This research enterprise is led by Dr. Lina Obeid, M.D., Boyle Professor of Medicine, Dr. Yusuf Hannun, M.D., Ralph Hirschmann Professor and Chairman of the Department of Biochemistry, by NIH-funded lipid-related investigators, and by other independently-funded investigators, including structural biologists, molecular biologists, developmental biologists, organic chemists, analytical chemists, bioinformaticists, and specialists in various areas of pathobiology, such as cardiovascular disorders, cancer, inflammation and infectious diseases and neurological syndromes. Please visit the following web-site for more information about the COBRE Program at MUSC:

Currently, the Department of Biochemistry has over 150 employees, including Faculty, Postdoctoral Fellows, Research Specialists, Administrative Coordinators, Administrative and Laboratory Managers. This represents a significant growth in the Department which had a total of 118 employees in 2002. With respect to research funding, the annual total costs awarded to the Department of Biochemistry have increased by 327% since 2001 ($2,771,438 in FY01 compared to $11,841,140 in FY08), representing the strongest Department research growth-rate in the College of Medicine during this period. This growth has resulted in a ranking of 16th place in FY-2008 for NIH funding for Biochemistry Departments in the United States, compared to the 41st place occupied in 2000. This success is attributed to a concerted team effort among Faculty, postdoctoral fellows, students and administrative personnel to broaden our research program.

Another distinguishing feature of the Biochemistry Department is that many Biochemistry Faculty have been acknowledged by the University during the last five years for their skills, commitment and dedication towards teaching, service and research education. The Distinguished Faculty Service Award was given in 2002 to Dr. William Stillway, Ph.D. The Distinguished University Professor Award was given in 2005 to Dr. Yusuf Hannun, M.D., for his leadership and for mentorship of junior faculty. The Health Science Foundation Developing Scholar Program Award was awarded to Sergey Krupenko, Ph.D., in 2002, to Christopher Davies, Ph.D., in 2003, to Dr. Besim Ogretmen, Ph.D., in 2004 and to Dr. Maurizio Del Poeta, M.D., in 2005.

As of August 2010, 20 students and 30 postdoctoral fellows are engaged in research projects in the Department of Biochemistry. During the last five years, we had a total of 15-27 students per year. Many of these students have received Awards for their studies. For instance, Dr. Benjamin Pettus, M.D./Ph.D., (2005) trained in the laboratory of Dr. Hannun with remarkable success. In addition to publishing 17 papers during his M.D./Ph.D. training, Ben received the Sosnowski M.D. Award in 2000, the Avanti Polar Lipids Pre-doctoral Research Presentation Award in 2002, the Como Ceramide Conference Research Presentation Award in 2003 and the MUSC Distinguished Graduate Student Award in 2005. Dr. Pettus is currently enrolled in a Diagnostic-Research Residency at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital/Washington University in St. Louis, MO.

A second M.D/Ph.D. graduate who excelled in her studies is Lena Heung (2007), who studied in the laboratory of Dr. Del Poeta. Lena received the 2002 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Travel Award for the 5th ICCC meeting in Adelaide (Australia), the Corporate Activities Program Student Travel Award by the America Society for Microbiology, and the Travel Award to participate at the 38th Southeastern Regional Lipid Conference in Cashiers (NC) in 2003. In addition, she was selected to participate to the Summer Molecular Mycology Course at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole (MA) in 2002. At MUSC, she received Second Place Awards in 1999 and 2001, and First Place Awards in 2002 and 2003 for best oral presentations at the Student Research Day. In 2005, she received the Provost Scholarship Award. Lena is currently enrolled in the Internal Medicine/Pediatrics Program at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.

A third student is Steve Reuland, who was studying in the laboratory of Dr. Krupenko received the Abney Foundation Scholarship Award for his outstanding research studies. Steve graduated in 2006.

Some of the other Honors/Awards received by Biochemistry students recently include: 2006 Abney Scholarship, 2007 1st Place Winner (oral presentation) Perry V. Halushka Student Research Day, 2008 Mid-Atlantic Regional American Heart Association Pre-Doctoral Fellowship (Russell Jenkins); 2nd Place in PhD I Category, Student Research Day (Rosanna Robertson); 2007 NIH Travel Scholarship Award 2007 GAANN Fellowship, 2008 Travel Award for the 7th ICCC meeting in Nagasaki, Japan (Travis McQuiston); AAAS/Science Membership Award (Can Senkal, Graham Solomons and Nathan Alderson); 2007 NIH Comprehensive Minority Biomedical Branch Award, 2008 Carl Storm Underrepresented Minority Fellowship, 2009 Charleston Ceramide Conference Student Award (Arelis Salas); 2008 Abney Foundation Scholarship (Alexis Hoeferlin); 2008 Abney Foundation Scholarship (David M. Perry); 2008-2009 Abney Foundation Scholarship, 2008 Wachovia Scholarship (Sahar Saddoughi); 2009 Outstanding Poster Presentation, 6th Annual SER-CAT Symposium (UAH. Huntsville, AI) (Rosanna Robertson); 2008-2009 GAANN fellowship, 2008 Poster Travel Award SERLC, 2009-2011 American Hearth Association Predoctoral Fellowship (Ryan Rhome); Hollings Cancer Center Spring Symposium Outstanding Scientific Poster, Second Place (Lam C. Tsoi); ISMB Travel Award (Brian Muller); Student Research Day Bioinformatics Awards (2007, Joshua Swearingen, Brian Muller; 2008, Lam C. Tsoi); Student Research Day, PhD I Poster Category, First Place (Joshua Swearingen), International Conference on Biomedical Ontology travel award (2009, Lam C. Tsoi)

In addition to receiving numerous awards, students and fellows who joined the research teams in the Department of Biochemistry have published their work in high profile journals, such as Nature, Genes & Development, Journal of Clinical Investigation, PNAS, EMBO Journal, JBC, MBC, MCB, Biochemistry, Bioinformatics, Journal of Biomedical Informatics, BMC Bioinformatics, and BMC Research Notes. Please visit our “Journal Posting Board” located on the 5th floor, where the student and fellow’s works are posted.

Research Facilities
The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has laboratories that are equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation including high pressure liquid chromatography systems, confocal microscopy, mass spectroscopy, DNA and protein sequencing facilities, lipid synthesis and core analysis, X-ray crystallography, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), bioinformatics computing cluster, and all basic laboratory equipment.

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General information about admission to the Graduate School at MUSC can be obtained at: Please make sure you select “Biochemistry” if you are interested in our Program of Study.

Students who select the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for their graduate studies should have a strong background in biological sciences. Undergraduate training in organic chemistry and biology are advantageous. For more information regarding the program, students are encouraged to contact Dr. Christopher Davies, Director of the Graduate Training Program in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at, (843) 792-1468.

Ph.D. Program
A typical course of study for the Ph.D. in Biochemistry is outlined below.

First Year
Basic Biomedical Science - Common curriculum. There are two main elements in the first year of graduate study at MUSC: a common curriculum and laboratory rotations. The common curriculum is offered by the College of Graduate Studies and provides molecular foundations in biomedical sciences. During the first year, students participate in a program of laboratory rotations. These laboratory rotations serve to expose the students both to new experimental methods and techniques. At the end of the first year, students choose the laboratory they wish to affiliate with for the rest of their program at MUSC.

Second Year
The principal events occurring during this year for a graduate student in Biochemistry is the definition of the research project and the Written Qualifying Exam. The Written Qualifying Exam is administered by the Graduate Training Committee of the Department of Biochemistry during the first or second week of June. The objective of the examination is to determine whether the student understands the principles of biochemistry and molecular biology, can read and comprehend relevant literature related to specific questions, and can then synthesize a coherent response, convincing the committee that the student has a solid background in biochemistry and molecular biology. For students engaged in the bioinformatics program, the test examines the student’s background in statistical, computational, and modeling methods applied to problems in molecular biology. Among four/five questions formulated by the graduate training committee members, the students will need to answer one of them, in a period of one week. The Graduate Training Committee will determine whether a student has passed or failed the examination. In the case of failure to pass the written qualifying, the student may be permitted to retake the exam once, in not less than one month and not more than one year from the time the decision was made. Failure of the second examination will result in the termination of the student’s Ph.D. program. Early in the second year, bioinformatics students take additional coursework in statistics, data mining, algorithms, and mathematical modeling.

Third Year
After passing the Written exam, students must select the members of the Dissertation Committee as soon as possible and no later then 6 months from passing the written exam. The thesis committee consists of the advisor plus 4 additional faculty, one of whom must be outside the department. Students are also encouraged to set up an introductory meeting with the members of the Dissertation committee. The first committee meeting should take place in Dec-Jan of the second year. The overall purpose is to acquaint the faculty members with the student and the student’s proposed research project. before the end of the third year, students take the Oral Qualifying Exam, administered by the thesis committee. The Oral Qualifying exam must be taken within one year of passing the Written Qualifying Exam. If the student will not set up the Oral qualifying exam within one year of passing the written exam, he/she will be placed on probation until the exam will be passed. During this time, the student will not receive the stipend. For the oral exam, the student will first submit a research proposal in a NIH grant format on his/her research topic. The research proposal must be submitted to each member of the dissertation committee at least one week before the oral defense. The examination will include a public presentation of the research project followed by general questions from the audience. Subsequently, a closed session with the student, the dissertation committee members and other program faculty who further want to question the student on the research proposal or/and on general knowledge will follow. The students in the second year are strongly encouraged to attend the oral defenses of their fellow students in order to get an idea of what it is expected. Guidelines for the written proposal following NIH format are available in the Director’s office.

After passing both written and oral qualifying exams and approval of the research proposal, the student will be certified as a candidate for the Ph.D. degree. Such admission to the candidacy must occur at least one year prior to completing all requirements for the degree.

Fourth/Fifth Year
During the fourth and subsequent years of graduate study in biochemistry, students are primarily responsible for conducting their research project. A dissertation based on original investigation is required, which gives evidence of mature scholarship and critical judgment, indicates knowledge of research methods and techniques, and demonstrates the ability to carry out independent investigation. Publication of doctoral dissertation is required of all students. After your mentor has approved your written dissertation, it should be submitted to each of your Dissertation Committee members. The Dissertation Committee requires 14 days to review your dissertation before they sign the Dissertation Defense Notice certifying that it is ready to defend. The Dissertation Defense Notice needs to be turned into the Graduate Office at least two weeks before the scheduled public defense. In other words, students must give the written dissertation to the dissertation committee at least one month before the dissertation date. On the dissertation day, the candidate is required to present his work in a public seminar. Following this presentation of 30-40 minutes, general questions are taken from the audience, which includes students and faculty members of the Biochemistry graduate program as well as general graduate faculty. After general questions, a closed session is conducted by the student’s thesis committee and graduate faculty. The dissertation committee will have the primary responsibility for evaluating the student’s research including the written dissertation, the formal oral presentation, handling of questions, and for administrating the final oral examination. Approval of the dissertation committee with no more than one dissenting vote is necessary for awarding the Ph.D. degree. In the event of disapproval, the candidate may be permitted to retake the examination in not less than six months and not more than two years from the time this decision was made. Only one opportunity for re-examination is given.

Ph.D. Program Requirements
1. Successful completion of the 1st Year Core Curriculum
2. Successful completion of a total of 12 credit hours of course work in the 2nd year and beyond,
    including a statistics course (MCR700 or equivalent) and Molecular Foundations of Medicine (BMB-605)
3. Successful completion of the written qualifying examination at the end of 2nd year
4. Successful completion of the oral qualifying examination within 12 months of passing the written qualifying examination
5. At least one original research article published in a peer-reviewed journal as a first author
6. 15 credit hours of laboratory research in each semester in the 2nd year and beyond
7. Successful completion of dissertation proposal and final defense of dissertation

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Program Goals
The Graduate Program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology plans to continue to develop our program to attract the brightest students to MUSC and our graduate program. We are continuously working on ideas for either revising existing courses or creating new courses to aid our students in keeping abreast of the most recent cutting edge science and techniques. The Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has several new junior faculty members that wish to recruit new graduate students into their research programs. We feel that our program has many opportunities to offer graduate students.

For more information about the different programs, courses and/or selectives, please contact the corresponding course/selective director or:

Contact Information

Christopher Davies, PhD
Graduate Program Director
(843) 792-1468

Belinda Andersen
Graduate Program Coordinator
(843) 792-2476

Graduate Training Committee Members

Ashley Cowart, PhD, Assistant Professor
Christopher Davies, PhD, Professor and Program Director
Hiroko Hama, PhD, Associate Professor
Tilman Heise, PhD, Assistant Professor
Mirko Hennig, PhD, Associate Professor
Besim Ogretmen, PhD, Professor
Eleanor Spicer, PhD, Professor
Yong-Mei Zhang, PhD, Assistant Professor

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