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Joe Cirilo, a student in the Biomedical Sciences PhD program, is seen at work in a College of Medicine lab in June 2020.

Biomedical Sciences PhD

Biomedical Sciences PhD Program Details

The Penn State Biomedical Sciences PhD Program – with its options in Biochemistry, Genetics and Genomics, Cancer Biology, Cellular and Integrative Physiology, Translational Therapeutics, and Virology and Immunology – is a nationally and internationally recognized interdisciplinary graduate program that provides students curricular and research training with a unique focus on human health and disease.

Students receive rigorous training that provides the skills necessary to be leaders in biomedical research and other endeavors including business, education, law, journalism, and public policy.

Students in the program have the ability to choose among six curricular tracks, and there is extensive flexibility to tailor curriculum and dissertation research to each individual student’s interests. With the research emphasis of the program, students also participate in research rotations in at least three laboratories during the first year. These experiences provide students the opportunity to experience a range of research approaches and interests prior  to choosing the laboratory for their dissertation research.

Program Overview

First Year

During the first year, students participate in both coursework and laboratory rotations. The two interdisciplinary courses taken in the fall semester of the first year - Cell and Systems Biology and Flow of Cellular Information - provide foundational knowledge important for all curricular tracks of the BMS Graduate Program. Given the critical importance of communication skills in science, students also participate in the presentation and seminar course titled The Art of Scientific Communication I. To enhance their laboratory research skills and to begin the process of identifying the laboratory for their dissertation research, students also participate in one eight- to 10-week laboratory rotation during the semester.

In the spring semester of the first year, students participate in courses that enhance expertise in their chosen areas of interest. Students choose among advanced courses required for the various curricular tracks and elective courses that further develop their specific interests. Students continue to hone their communication skills in The Art of Scientific Communication II and further their exposure to different laboratory research experiences by completing two additional laboratory rotations.

At the end of the first year, students take the Qualifying Exam that assesses both their foundation of knowledge and the development of their critical thinking skills. In addition, students identify both the laboratory for their dissertation research and their  curricular track at this time.

Second Year

During the second year, laboratory research becomes the student’s major commitment. Students are in the laboratory conducting work that will lead to the development of their dissertation research. A limited number of courses chosen in consultation with the dissertation adviser are also taken.

At the end of the second year, students complete the Comprehensive Exam, in which they develop and defend a research grant-like proposal.

Third Year and Beyond

By the third year, students are in the laboratory full-time conducting their dissertation research. The average time to graduation for biomedical sciences PhD students at the College of Medicine is 5.5 years, which is the same as the national average.

Curricular Tracks

Curricular tracks in the Biomedical Sciences PhD include a BMS Program track, as well as five option tracks.

Biomedical Sciences Program Track

The Biomedical Sciences curricular track emphasizes flexibility since research areas of faculty range from molecules to cells to organisms to systems. In consultation with their research adviser, students in this track choose courses from a variety of departments and programs to complement their research project and interests. Students may choose a research adviser from any BMS program faculty, including those who are members of options within BMS.

Option in Biochemistry, Genetics and Genomics

The curriculum and laboratory training for students in the Option in Biochemistry, Genetics and Genomics (BGG) focuses on the application of biochemical and molecular genetic analyses to basic and translational investigation of human health and disease.

The BGG option trains students to identify, formulate, and solve significant biological problems using biochemical and molecular genetic approaches.

Research strengths of faculty in the option include: enzyme structure and function; epigenetics and epigenomics; cancer biochemistry and genetics; biochemistry of infectious diseases; structural biochemistry in human disease; biochemistry and genetics of DNA repair; carbohydrates and lipids in health and disease; genetics and biochemistry in metabolism; and genetic analysis of complex disorders.

Option in Cancer Biology

The Cancer Biology Option provides students interested in pursuing a career in cancer research with an appreciation for the dynamic nature of cancer research and the development of treatment options. 

The option includes a combination of didactic courses, colloquia, clinical rotations, and laboratory research to provide students with an integrated approach for applying advanced imaging, biological, and molecular analyses. Students will interrogate and manipulate basic cellular processes involved in carcinogenesis, cancer progression, and metastasis as well as in depth analysis of translational research. A structured clinical rotation offers frequent interactions with basic science faculty, physicians, patients, and clinical trials. Students gain an appreciation for bench science and its connection to the clinical side of cancer research.

Option in Cellular and Integrative Physiology

The curriculum and laboratory training for students in the Option in Cellular and Integrative Physiology (CIP) focuses on solving complex, translationally-related research questions using state-of-the-art cellular and integrative physiology approaches. This approach includes studies on the functions and interactions between different tissues, cell types and organ systems in health and disease.

Research strengths of faculty in the option include the use of cellular and animal models combined with clinical studies in humans to study intracellular organization, intercellular communication, and the regulation of key biological processes including cell signaling, ion channel and transport function, gene expression, protein translation and turnover, and molecular motors, and explore how these processes are dysregulated in pathological states such as cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetic retinopathy, sepsis, chronic kidney disease, surgical recovery, and gastrointestinal and musculoskeletal disorders.

This preparation provides students with an integrated approach for applying advanced imaging, biochemical, and molecular analyses to interrogate and manipulate basic cellular processes and macromolecules of biomedical significance.

Option in Translational Therapeutics

The curriculum and laboratory training for students in the Option in Translational Therapeutics (TT) provides students a combination of didactic instruction, informal interaction, and laboratory experiences that builds a firm foundation in the principles, methods, and contributions of pharmacology, defined broadly as the science of the interaction of chemical agents with biological systems.

Of primary importance, faculty in this option focus their work on identification of disease targets, development of therapeutic strategies, and refinement of drug delivery approaches.

With this preparation, graduates of the TT option will be able to design and execute high-quality independent research, and assume positions of responsibility within the therapeutic community.

Option in Virology & Immunology

The curriculum and laboratory training for students in the Option in Virology and Immunology (VIRIM) provides students the opportunity to focus their coursework and research training in areas related to virology and immunology.

This option trains individuals for professional careers in virology, immunology, and related disciplines.

Areas of research within virology include viral oncology, virus-cell interactions, viral structure and assembly, functional role of viral gene products, molecular biology of virus replication, and viral induced latency.

Areas of research within immunology include adaptive and innate immunity, cellular and humoral immunity, antigen presentation, tumor immunology, vaccine development, and neuroimmunology.

Students in the VIRIM option develop integrative research approaches using aspects of biochemistry, molecular and cellular biology, and genetics to approach scientific questions associated with areas of virology and immunology.

Academic Enrichment Opportunities

Dual Degrees or Titles

Highly motivated students in the Biomedical Sciences PhD Program have the option to participate in dual-title or dual-degree programs to further their studies.


In each program, admission to the Biomedical Sciences PhD Program is completed first, and students later apply for admission to the appropriate extended program.

  • PhD/MBA Program - Students in this option can pursue the Biomedical Sciences PhD and an MBA from Penn State Harrisburg simultaneously. See details on the PhD/MBA Program.
  • Dual-title PhD with Clinical and Translational Sciences - Students in this 15-month training program through the Penn State Clinical & Translational Science Institute can earn a dual-title PhD in Biomedical Sciences and Clinical and Translational Sciences through an interdisciplinary approach to translational research. See details on the Dual-Title PhD with Clinical and Translational Sciences Option.

Teaching Opportunities

Students in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program receive a graduate research assistantship and thus do not have a teaching requirement.

However, for students who are interested in an academic career that includes teaching responsibilities, several optional teaching opportunities and instructional programs are available both on and off campus.

Opportunities include:

Technology Development

Biomedical Sciences students are strongly encouraged to explore opportunities for entrepreneurship and technology development through programs at the College of Medicine.

  • Internship with the Center for Medical Innovation - Opportunities are available for students with an interest in innovation, entrepreneurship, or commercialization of products of research. Activities are related to inventions and discoveries developed at Penn State College of Medicine. In addition to first-hand experience in technology development, the internship provides opportunities for exposure to business and community leaders, venture capitalists and angel investors.
  • TechCelerator@Hershey Boot Camp - This program helps students think entrepreneurially as they explore the commercial potential of a technology. This eight-week educational program provides guidance about transitioning research into an operating business venture.
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