The PhD program is interdisciplinary both in course work and research (basic science and translational) to provide a strong foundation for a career in integrative physiology, and of equal importance, create a mindset and background that will enable the trainees to develop and/or move into new and evolving scientific fields.

The major emphasis of the program is to provide state-of-the-art research training. This training will be obtained under the supervision by a team of our primary (NIH funded) Physiology mentors, and co-mentors from other basic science and clinical faculty. The primary research emphasis is cardiovascular/renal and respiratory physiology and genetics, with endocrine, smooth muscle, and the central nervous system physiology and genetics as the major focus in some laboratories. Research will range from the use of whole animal through isolated organs, tissue culture and single cells to the molecular level, including signal transduction, biochemical pathways, gene expression and computational approaches to the analysis of complex systems.

Additional information about the program includes:

  • It is designed for students to a) acquire basic knowledge of all the biomedical basic sciences, b) develop critical thinking, integrative reasoning, and technical skills for research, and c) obtain the oral and written communication skills required for research and teaching responsibilities.
  • There is flexibility in the program that meets individual trainee interests while retaining a degree of structure that will optimize achievement of the objectives.

Our trainees are required to complete research in whole animal, cellular, and molecular areas through interdisciplinary team approaches, networking, and collaborations between basic science and clinical faculty with an emphasis on addressing the national need to train for the more integrated-systems future of biomedical research in the post-genome era.

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Sample Program Plan

Fall Semester of First Year


1. General Human Physiology (4 credits)

Basic functions of cells, tissues and organ systems are presented with homeostasis and physiological reserve as the central emphasis. Regulatory mechanisms which govern the performance of each physiological system are covered, as are the limits of performance of these systems. The course includes lectures and small group interactive discussions. This course is team taught with Drs. Cowley, Greene, Forster, Mattson, Lombard, and Raff, responsible for sections of their expertise.


2. Supplement to Physiology (1 credit)

Each Friday, faculty who lectured that week discuss the lecture material with the students.


3. Molecules to Cells (5 credits)

Emphasis is on the structure and function of proteins and on metabolic processes in cells.


4. Readings and Research in Physiology (1 credit)

This course will give credit for the laboratory rotations completed by the students.


Spring Semester of First Year

Students are required to complete the first two courses listed below. Students choose from the other courses (taught by faculty outside of Physiology) as needed to meet the 9-credit requirement.


1. Special Topics in Physiology (1 credit)

Under the direction of a senior faculty, manuscripts in a specialized field of Physiology are discussed and critiqued.


2. Readings and Research in Physiology (1 credit)

This course will cover the laboratory rotations completed by the students.


3. Integrated Neuroscience (4 credits)

This course utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to present current knowledge about integrated structural and functional properties of the mammalian nervous system.


4. Classical and Molecular Genetics (3 credits)

This interdisciplinary course provides students with a foundation in classical and molecular genetics, model systems genetics, the replication, repair, and recombination of the genetic material, developmental biology, cancer, and genomics.


5. Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics of the Cell (5 credits)

This course covers mechanisms for the transduction of extracellular signals across cell membranes and through the cytoplasm.


During the summer between the first and second year, the courses listed below are required. The students also begin research in the laboratory they have chosen for their dissertation.


1. Seminar (1credit)

Students will receive credit for presenting a seminar and attending all seminars in the department. Students enroll in seminar each summer in the program.


2. Biostatistics for Health Sciences (1credit)

This course covers the most basic and commonly used statistical concepts in the health sciences. Topics include descriptive statistics, estimation and hypothesis testing for designs involving more than two variables, linear regression and correlation, binomial topics and contingency tables, and analysis of variance.


Fall and Spring Semester of the Second Year

The emphasis shifts more to the research laboratory with about 50% of time completing initial research for their dissertation. During each semester of the 2nd year, the students are required to take five course credits from the options listed below. Courses 2 to 5 are required.


1. Advanced Systems Physiology courses (Cardiovascular, Respiratory, Renal, Endocrine)

These are five separate courses each for 1 credit taught, respectively, by Drs. Greene, Forster, Mattson, Raff, and Lombard. The courses are taught in a "journal club" format where the emphasis is on not only acquisition of basic knowledge, but also on critical evaluation of research papers, identification of gaps in knowledge, design of studies, and synthesis and communication of knowledge. These courses are offered either semester depending on student interest. There is no requirement to take any of these advanced courses, but the program directors and individual student mentors counsel the students on course selection.


2. Boundaries of Science and Medical Practice (1 credit)

This course (fall semester) is team-taught by Drs. Forster, Twining (Biochemistry), and Marcdante (Medicine). This course provides background relevant to translational research. At the end of this course, the students must identify gaps between basic science knowledge and clinical practice for specific clinical questions pertinent to their area of research and they must propose appropriate experiments that are feasible and compliant with regulatory and ethical issues.


3. Physiological Genomics (5 credits)

This course, (spring semester) taught by Dr. Geurts, is a combination lecture and discussion course on the theory and methods of elucidating gene function.


4. Fundamentals of Grant Writing (1 credit)

This course (spring semester) will cover the fundamentals of grant writing including, formulating aims, and developing preliminary data. Each student will develop a pre-doctoral fellowship application. We expect these grants will be submitted for funding to sponsors such as NIH or the American Heart Association.


5. Ethics and Integrity in Science (2 credits)

This course (fall semester) taught by Bioethics faculty provides the basis for understanding the ethical issues related to basic scientific and medical research, including, conflict of interest, animal and human subject research, mentor/mentee responsibilities, peer review, responsible authorship and publication, fraud and misconduct, and governmental, institutional, and researcher responsibilities.


6. Research Ethics Discussion (2 credits)

The course is directed by members of the Bioethics Faculty and provides facilitated discussions of a series of topics in research ethics. Discussions are led by members of the Basic Science faculty including Physiology and are focused on ethical issues that commonly come up in biomedical research. The course is meant to not only reinforce the basic ethics taught in "Ethics and Integrity in Science" which is a prerequisite, but also to explore the gray areas of the individual topics. The intent is to offer students illustrative examples of ethical issues that might arise in their careers, to emphasize the ethical principles that apply in such situations, and the provide practical guidance on how these types of situations should be correctly handled.


PhD Qualifying Examination

At the end of the second year, Physiology graduate students take the PhD Qualifying Examination:


1. Examination committee

The examination committee usually chaired by the Program Director will be composed of members of the Department Graduate committee plus one or two content experts. The student’s primary mentor is not on this committee.


2. Written research proposal

The research proposal should be a grant style proposal based on class materials or work conducted in laboratory rotations. The proposal does not necessarily reflect the work being done in their mentor’s laboratory nor is it considered their dissertation proposal. The proposal should be composed of the following (with suggested page lengths, not to exceed 7 pages): a) background (~2 pages), b) specific aims and hypotheses (~1 page), d) pilot data (optional and not expected), e) approach (~2 pages), and f) statistical treatment of data (~1 page). The proposal must be provided to the committee at least two weeks prior to oral defense. The proposal will be evaluated by the examination committee.


3. Oral defense date

This will be set once the examination committee rates the written proposal as acceptable. 


4. Examination committee members

This group can question the student at any point during the oral presentation. The student is expected to demonstrate a thorough understanding of the biomedical sciences.


5. Final decision

The committee determines a pass or fail based on both the written document and the student’s performance on the oral defense. The examination committee will also assign each student a score based on a 5-point rating system as required by the MCW graduate school. The committee will orally inform the student of their decision immediately after questioning and will also provide a written summary.


Other Courses

These are generally taken after Second Year and are optional.


1. Computational Methods of Biomedical Research (3 credits)

This course, taught by Dr. Dash, focuses on practical techniques for simulation and analysis of biological systems, developed largely through application-driven examples. Examples will be developed to a depth at which models will be used to analyze real biological or physiological data. To accomplish this, the important details of the underlying biological systems must be described along with a complete step-by-step development of model assumptions, the resulting equations, and (when necessary) computer code.


2. General Pharmacology (4 credits)

The course consists of lectures and demonstrations on the principles of pharmacology and the major therapeutic drugs. Discussed are the interaction of drugs, drug absorption and elimination, drug distribution, dose response relationships, toxicity, and therapeutic efficacy.


3. Mathematical Biology (3 credits)

Dr. Dash teaches the students how to express physiological problems in equations and how to solve such equations. Emphasis on physiological problem-solving methods rather than mathematical theory. Topics include the application of matrices, differential equations, and numerical analysis to problems in bioelectricity, biomechanics, and optics.


4. Effects of Drugs and Other Chemicals on the Autonomic and Somatic Nervous Systems (2 credits)

Recent advances in the field of autonomic and peripheral nervous system physiology and pharmacology: drug receptor concepts; agonist-antagonist interactions; chemical transmission and the pharmacodynamic effects of autonomic agents.


5. Central Nervous System Pharmacology (2 credits)

Selected drugs which affect the central nervous system are discussed. Emphasis is on those neuronal mechanisms which are involved in the elaboration of behavior. The neurochemical and neurophysiological basis of drug action is presented.


6. Advanced Cell Biology (3 credits)

Lectures and readings in the renewal, differentiation, communication, adhesion, secretion, motility, gene activity, and mitochondrial dynamics of eukaryotic cells.


7. Phys 08399 Doctoral Dissertation (9 semester hours)
Students enroll in this course during the semester they defend their dissertation which is their last semester in the program.


Selection of a Dissertation Preceptor (Primary Mentor):

This process begins upon matriculation when the students begin laboratory rotations. The Program Directors inform trainees of faculty that are eligible to be preceptors. Eligibility requires a federally funded research grant, demonstrated mentoring and teaching skills, and available time and resources to support a student. Selection of a preceptor will occur via mutual agreement (between the trainee and the faculty member) and must be approved by the Program Directors. The laboratory rotations, attendance in seminars and courses, and the compatibility of the personalities and styles of the student and preceptor are all factors in the student’s decision regarding a mentor. At the completion of the 3 laboratory rotations, the students finalize their decision regarding a preceptor. They are required to write a general description of the dissertation research, and if acceptable, the Program Directors will then approve the student’s choice of dissertation primary mentor.


The Dissertation Committee, Dissertation Research, and Mentoring. The trainee and preceptor will form a dissertation committee composed of 2 additional Physiology faculty members, co-mentors from another basic science department and/or from a clinical department, and a senior scientist outside of MCW. The committee must be approved by the Program Directors by the end of the second summer in the program. Committees will meet at least twice yearly to evaluate progress. Within 6 months of committee formation, a dissertation proposal must be submitted to committee members, the Program Director, and Dean of the Graduate School for approval. The Program Directors attend the twice yearly required meetings. They assess student progress as outlined in their individual development plans, e.g. meeting the benchmark of two publications stemming from dissertation research.


The dissertation proposal describes the problem, hypotheses, and methodology of the dissertation research; in the Physiology department, dissertation proposals must span the continuum from the subcellular to the whole animal level. The specific aims of the dissertation requires the expert contribution of a co-mentor in a clinical department and usually also a co-mentor in a basic science department other than physiology.  This requirement meets the NHLBI “group mentorship” plan “whereby multiple senior partners in team-based research lend their individual expertise to the trainee.” The dissertation committee and research of recent graduate (Gary Mouradian) are an example of: 1) the collaborative contributions of diverse faculty mentoring, and 2) the expansive research scope from whole animal to cellular/molecular mechanisms.


Graduate Student's Individual Development Plan

Each student must create and then annually update an Individual Development Plan.


Step 1

Consider these two questions:


1. What are your long-term career plans? What do imagine you will be doing 10 years from now?


2. Do you have plans to obtain further training once you complete your PhD? If so, what are those plans and how will they help you achieve your long-term career goal?


Answer each of these questions briefly to help you focus your annual development.


Step 2

Step two is identifying the skills that you need to acquire and developing an annual plan to help you do this. Use the template in questions 3 and 4 as a guide. You should include your mentor or program director in discussions about skills development and the timeline towards graduation.


3. Timeline for skills development.


The timeline should include discussion of how you will gain expertise in those skills that will be important for your future development. Several suggestions for areas are listed below but this is not a complete list. You should add additional skills that are unique to you.


a) note taking, manuscript reading, efficient extraction of information
b) study habits
c) oral and written communication
d) critical reasoning
e) acquisition of knowledge
f) teaching


For the current calendar year which of the skills listed above will you focus on developing? What are your plans to acquire or improve those skills?


4. Timeline to complete requirements.


This is the timeline by which you anticipate achieving the following critical milestones towards your degree.


a) course work including required and optional
b) preliminary examination
c) dissertation outline
d) chapters or manuscripts for dissertation
e) completed dissertation and defense
f) other