DBBS: 35 Years • 1,000 PhDs

The Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences united two campuses and revolutionized biomedical training and research. Now it charts a bold new direction for the 21st century.



DBBS members gain access to about 80 outstanding students admitted each year.

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Scientific breakthroughs are at once products of discipline, training and, most elusively, creativity. So building an educational infrastructure that fosters innovations while also providing a solid grounding for the rising scientists who will make them requires a balance of instinct and logic, foresight and experience. That challenge doesn't deter leaders in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) at Washington University, a widely emulated graduate training framework that, at age 35, is reinventing itself.

Founded in 1973 by educational visionaries William Danforth, P. Roy Vagelos, Max Cowan and others, the DBBS originally set a radically new direction for teaching biological science. Core departments relinquished their individual graduate training programs to participate in the centralized DBBS structure. And a key tenet was that cross-departmental intellectual pollination benefits students and mentors alike, providing fresh perspectives on problems. "A place with few barriers to working together," chancellor emeritus Danforth has called it. The Washington University model was so successful that it became the international standard for teaching the biological and biomedical sciences. "We inspired other programs that have become our competitors," says David Van Essen, PhD, head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology and chair of the DBBS Executive Council.

Ralph S. Quatrano, PhD, right, and research biologist Steven Wise, left, the first recipient of a PhD from the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, were on hand during the Division's symposium in May to award Zhen Mahoney with the Division's 1,000th PhD. The two-day event also featured a keynote address, the presentation of scientific abstracts and career path panel discussions.

For 35 years, the DBBS regularly added new programs and adjusted others to remain focused on current questions in biology. But recently, an unblinking self-evaluation combined with large and fast changes in the nature of science prompted DBBS leadership to determine that the organization needed further modernizing.

"The self study made the strong recommendation that the Division should be open to all faculty of the university with research programs and an interest in the life sciences," says Ralph S. Quatrano, PhD, former head of the Department of Biology, immediate past chair of the Executive Council, and now interim dean of the faculty of Arts & Sciences.

That advice dovetailed with an awareness that the pursuit of bioscience was expanding to link what were previously thought to be unrelated disciplines. "Science is evolving rapidly; many areas require more expertise than one faculty member or student can bring. Collaborations are vital," Van Essen says.

John H. Russell, PhD, associate dean for graduate education at the School of Medicine, explains the fundamental change this way: "In the '80s and '90s, science was heavily reductionist; either black or white, with little gray. Now we see the need to understand how molecules interact, not just how they are characterized. We saw cancer as a linear disease — cells dividing too prolifically. Then we learned that regulation of cell death is just as important, and the problem got much bigger. We used to look at snapshots of molecules in isolation; now we're making movies of molecules interacting with each other in real time."

The DBBS' response to these concerns has been, first, to make it possible for a faculty member from any department in the university to apply to become a member of the Division. The primary prerequisites are a significant and relevant research program plus the qualifications to be an effective mentor. A great benefit to being a member, Quatrano says, is that members gain access to about 80 outstanding students admitted each year who can rotate through their labs and who are initially supported by the DBBS.

The second response by the DBBS has been to initiate a program of special emphasis pathways to "break out of the silos we've grown up in," Russell says. By piercing the boundaries between schools and colleges of the university, the pathways expand and refresh the original DBBS concept of crossing departmental lines. This broader reach better positions the Division to contribute to the genomic revolution, the BioMed 21 initiative and to help lead university research as a whole. For example, Van Essen, whose interest in brain mapping has grown increasingly relevant to the clinical realm, is exploring how the DBBS and the university's rapidly expanding emphasis on clinical and translational research can interact effectively. The organic nature of the pathways allows the DBBS to maintain its responsiveness. Van Essen says, "It's hard to predict where opportunity and excitement will spring up next. The pathways model provides a fertile ground for good ideas to grow into action, a mechanism for pulling people together and channeling resources."

Now numbering seven — in various stages of development — the pathways offer students opportunities to gain refreshed perspectives as they interact with other fields, each with its own language and angle of attack to problems. For example, one of the more mature pathways, Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience (CCSN), recognizes the blurring of traditional lines between brain-related research in psychology, biology and engineering. CCSN created a curriculum that prepares students to become leaders in this new interdisciplinary science. The CCSN curriculum includes three core and two advanced courses open to students pursuing PhDs in neuroscience, psychology or biomedical engineering. Russell says the goal of the pathway is nothing short of learning to understand cognition.

Newer is the Imaging Sciences Pathway, open to graduate students in the DBBS, chemistry, physics and engineering. With more than 60 mentors from 17 departments on the Danforth and medical campuses, the pathway prepares graduate students to pursue imaging technology developments and their application to the visualization of human diseases.

All of the curricula are challenging, and students still must fulfill the requirements of their home departments and programs to earn their degrees, but the added value that the pathways generate provides an advantage in recruiting the best students and outstanding faculty. "Students are no longer pigeonholed," Russell says. "They get a broad background that serves them well in their future careers."

The Division also is expanding its renewed emphasis on interdisciplinarity to undergraduate education. Quatrano says a founding vision was that faculty would be involved with undergraduate education as a way of "priming the pump." His recent undergraduate seminar exposed freshmen to 12 faculty members' thinking about the development and application of new imaging techniques. Such efforts teach the various languages students will need and thereby cut the time needed to obtain their degree, Russell says.

Funding to organize and develop the pathways has been provided by private foundations and government agencies, in part because the DBBS provides structure and support, Van Essen says. But funding entities often expect the university to pick up the tab for ongoing operations, which is more difficult to procure. Strengthening graduate education should become a high priority for the university, the Division leaders say, calling for a commitment similar to that which drove the university's recent ascendancy in undergraduate excellence.

The need is especially acute considering that DBBS aims to expand from 80 incoming students per year to 100 in connection with cutting-edge programs. Moreover, the stipends paid to students need to increase in order to remain competitive with programs at other top institutions. To meet these needs, the leaders estimate that the endowment must double.

Beyond finances, Van Essen says the keys to success lie in balance: "We must capitalize on our highly collaborative nature, sustain our excellence in basic science, build on new opportunities and develop innovative ways to prepare our students for leadership in 21st-century biomedical research."

The benefits that will accrue and the prospects for remarkable breakthroughs can be extrapolated from the "bookends" on display at the recent DBBS symposium, where Steven Wise, PhD, the recipient of the first PhD awarded by the Division and now a research biologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, awarded Zhen Mahoney — a former student at Peking University, a McDonnell Academy Scholar School partner — with the Division's 1,000th PhD.