History of Pathology & Cell Biology at Columbia

Reinventing the PhD Program

By Ron Liem, PhD, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology

Photo of Dr. Ronald LiemWhen the new Chair and his team arrived at the Department of Pathology in 1987, the Graduate Program had lost accreditation. There was only one NIH grant in the whole department. Part of the problem was that the students in the program were typically not working in laboratories in the Department, had not partaken in any organized curriculum, did not receive stipends, and often even paid tuition, which in excellent PhD programs, is paid by the program. To remedy these defects, we proposed a curriculum of courses in basic cell and molecular biology as well as the mechanisms of human disease, student seminars, laboratory rotations and guaranteed support for the students. We were provisionally approved for accreditation, and admitted our first class in 1988. Since that time we have developed into a vibrant and rigorous graduate program.

Among the graduates from our program are Wei Gu, Professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia and Geri Kreitzer Associate Professor of Cell Biology at Cornell. Dr. Stefan Pukazki is an Assistant Profressor of Biology at the University of Alberta and works on cholera infection. Chung-Liang Chien is Professor of Anatomy and Associate Dean of Student Affairs and International Affairs, National Taiwan University. Several of our students have won the Weintraub Graduate Student Award at the national level and the Dean's Award at the university level.

The Graduate Programs at Columbia University Medical Center are now consolidated under the Coordinated Doctoral Programs in Biomedical Sciences. Our graduate program is now called the Program in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine and is part of the Graduate Programs in Molecular Basis of Health and Disease. There are currently 25 students in the Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine Program (average five per class), including MD-PhD students. The number and the quality of applicants have steadily increased over the years. The students have a rigorous curriculum that includes basic science courses in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology and molecular genetics, as well as a one year course in Mechanisms of Human Disease and a course in Histopathology. All students receive serious training in the Responsible Conduct of Research. A number of our students participate in the Med into Grad Program, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute supported program that gives graduate students clinical experience. The directors of the program are Drs. Ron Liem, Steve Spitalnik, Howard Worman and Patrice Spitalnik. The perspective of one of our students, Mike Badgley, appears elsewhere in The Newsletter.

Over the years, our faculty members have participated heavily in several other graduate programs at the Columbia University Medical Center. In addition to the Med into Grad Program, both the Integrated Program in Cellular, Molecular and Biomedical Studies and the MD-PhD programs are run by Drs. Liem and Shelanski. Both programs have long-standing training grants that have just been renewed. The Cell Biology Program is now a subdivision of the Integrated Program, which is directed by myself with the critical assistance of Zaia Sivo, who also administers the Pathobiology Program. The Vision Training Grant and the Cancer Training Grant are directed by Drs. Carol Mason and Richard Baer, respectively. Dr. Mason is also one of the co-directors of the Neurobiology and Behavior graduate program. Faculty in our department have students from many different graduate programs in the Basic Medical Sciences, in addition to students from the Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine Program, the Integrated Program, the Neurobiology and Behavior Program and the MD-PhD Program, and the Pharmacology, Nutrition and Genetics programs.

Our students are the reason we come to work in the morning and, although managing a student's training is often not simple, it is one of the most fulfilling experiences we can have.

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