Molecular Biology Program

Link to Molecular Biology Program Guidelines

First-year graduate students begin their studies Fall semester, although students may elect to arrive earlier in the summer to accommodate an additional lab rotation. Prior to arrival, each student is assigned a faculty advisor, who will provide guidance on first-year curriculum and laboratory rotation choices, and a senior student advisor, who can additionally provide assistance to students looking for housing at the University of Utah or within the Salt Lake City community.

All Ph.D. students admitted to the Molecular Biology Program receive financial support (fellowship - $27,000 for the 2016-17 academic year, tuition waiver, and health insurance) throughout the entirety of their graduate student tenure.

First Year of Graduate Study - In the Classroom

Core Curriculum

Molecular Biology Program students take one full-semester length and three half-semester length core courses that have been designed to provide students with a solid background in a variety of important areas of molecular biology. Students with deficiencies in their academic background may be asked to remedy these by taking appropriate courses at the undergraduate level. By the end of the second year of study, all students are expected to have fulfilled the Program's core requirements (grades of B- or better). The Program's required core courses are listed below:

G3: Genetics, Genomes, and Gene Expression (full semester, Fall)
Protein/Nucleic Acid Biochemistry (half semester, Fall)
Cell Biology (half semester, Fall)


Molecular Biology Program students enroll in two half semesters of elective study in the spring semester. These are didactic courses designed to help students gain proficiency in specialized areas of interest. There is a large selection of elective classes. These have included:

Protein Chemistry, Biophysical Chemistry, Medicinal and Biological Chemistry; Bioanalytical Chemistry; Clinical & Molecular Cancer Biology; Regulation of Metabolism; Metabolism and Cancer; Developmental Neurobiology; Optics in Biology; Evolution Genetics/Genome; Host Pathogen Interaction; Introduction to Bioinformatics; Cell Biology II; Systems Neuroscience; Genetics of Complex Diseases; Macromolecular Therapeutics & Drug Delivery; Protein Chemistry; Utilization of Animal Models


Case Studies in Research Ethics is taken in the fall semester of the first year of graduate study. In this class, students discuss ethical issues of scientific research and integrity. Specific topics include scientific fraud, conflicts of interest, plagiarism, authorship designation, and the role of science in formulating social policy.

Literature Review and Problem Solving / Guided Grant Preparation

In order to teach the skills required to be a successful independent scientist this course will teach students how to digest and analyze papers and problem solve, both of which will review and apply material from core coursers. The instructors will develop specific course content. Topics may include: How to read a paper (read at home, discuss in class); Survey of the core services; Problem solving with open-ended problems posed on real-life or made-up situations. A focused effort will be made to help students identify topics that they can develop into grants in the Spring term. Grading will be based on participation and individual work.

To prepare students for their thesis research, prelims, and qualifying exams, we will offer a guided grant preparation course in the second half of the Spring semester that builds on their experience earlier in the semester (critical reading of primary literature and problem solving). The guided grant writing course will provide an opportunity for students to create an original research proposal by critical review of other grants, training in hypothesis generation, scientific writing, and experimental design. The written original grant proposal will be used as a basis for an oral qualifying examination by a faculty committee.

Capstone Exam

The written original grant proposal prepared in the Guided Grant Preparation course will be used as a basis for an oral capstone examination by a faculty committee. This exam will ensure that students meet our standards for thesis work and review material from the core courses before they join a department and lab. Students will prepare an R21-style grant proposal (~6 single-spaced pages, covering 2 years of work) to be submitted 5 days before the exam. They will present and defend the proposal in front of a 3-member capstone exam committee. Students must pass this exam in order to join a lab and department.

Departmental Seminars

Each of the participating departments has weekly journal clubs and research-in-progress seminars that are considered a continuing and vital part of the students' graduate education.

First Year of Graduate Study - In the Laboratory

Lab Rotations

Molecular Biology Program students complete three laboratory rotations in their first year of graduate study. An additional rotation can be done in the summer, either at the beginning or end of the first year, but cannot substitute for one of the three required academic year rotations. Laboratory rotations are essential for identifying the appropriate thesis mentor and lab. In addition, laboratory rotations expose students to a wide variety of research areas and experimental techniques, and enable students to develop a network of research contacts. To assist students in identifying productive and exciting laboratory rotation experiences, Program faculty present short talks about their research programs during the fall semester in the Faculty Research Seminar forum. Program faculty talks inform students about the diversity of possible thesis topics and the variety of experimental approaches employed in the different Program laboratories.

Choosing a Mentor

Students choose thesis advisors at the end of Spring semester. Arrangements are made by mutual agreement between mentor and student, and automatically admit the student to the degree program of the advisor's department (Biology, Biochemistry, Human Genetics, Neurobiology and Anatomy, Oncological Sciences, or Pathology). All Program faculty members strive to arrange space in their labs so that they can accommodate at least one thesis student from each Molecular Biology Program class. The low student/faculty ratio in the Molecular Biology Program contributes to a high level of student choice and to an outstanding training environment.

Graduate Study in the Second Year and Beyond

Admission to Candidacy

Students are admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree after (1) successfully completing the first-year Molecular Biology program of study including the captone exam, and (2) passing the "qualifying" (or "prelim") examination. The qualifying exam is taken before the end of the second year of graduate school and is administered either by the students' thesis committee or by a departmental examining committee. The exam entails preparation of written research proposals in areas outside that of the proposed thesis research and subsequent oral defense of the selected proposal(s).

Advanced Coursework

Upper-level graduate students are required to take a combination totaling three half semesters of Elective (discussed above) and Special Topics Seminar courses. In Special Topics Seminar courses, students conduct literature searches, prepare lectures, make presentations, and lead discussions. A faculty member usually chooses the general topic, provides a few references, and serves as a resource. Examples of recent course topics include:

Advanced Immunology; Animal Virus Replication; Biology & Biochemistry of Cytokines and Their Receptors; Developmental Biology; DNA Replication; Gene Amplification; Gene Expression in Prokaryotes; Genetic Imprinting; Ion Channels; Oncogenes and Anti-oncogenes; Protein Targeting

Teaching Experience

Graduate students admitted to the Molecular Biology Program are required to obtain just one semester of teaching experience in their second or later years. Teaching opportunities include, but are not limited to: assisting instructors in graduate level courses, leading discussion sections in undergraduate lecture courses, supervising undergraduates in laboratory courses, and serving as a teaching assistant in local public schools. There is no teaching obligation in the first year of Program study, thereby enabling students to concentrate on laboratory rotations and first-year academics.

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