The Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine offers a PhD degree tailored for a research career in the biomedical sciences. The study of the brain is perhaps the most challenging and fascinating scientific endeavor ever attempted. In recent years it has gathered tremendous momentum, and our program offers an excellent opportunity to participate in it. All students admitted to the program are fully supported financially; learning neurobiology and acquiring the best scientific skills is their full-time job.
During their first year, students complete a core set of courses (see our curriculum) and typically do rotations in 3 laboratories. The first-year courses cover material on gross and microscopic anatomy, developmental biology, cellular and molecular biology, biochemistry, and physiology, all geared toward identifying key structures and functions of the nervous system. These courses are normally taken along with weekly research seminars and journal clubs.
There are some obligatory courses in the second year, but by then the focus shifts to research in the student's home laboratory, where a thesis project begins to be developed. In the second year there are effectively 2 PhD tracks, one with an emphasis on developmental neurobiology (how the nervous system develops, organizes and repairs itself) and another with an emphasis on systems neuroscience and sensory processes (how the responses of neurons are related to the sensory world and to behavior). The former looks at processes occurring roughly between single neurons and single molecules, and uses many biochemical and molecular biology techniques, whereas the latter looks at processes that take place at larger scales, roughly between single neurons and whole organisms, and typically requires a variety of macroscopic techniques, such as electrophysiology, psychophysics, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computer modeling.
At the end of the second year, students present a qualifying exam, which consists of a proposal for the thesis project. There are 2 parts to it, a written document, which is in the same format of an actual pre-doctoral grant application, and an oral exam, which is a discussion of the project with a thesis committee.
The proposal is simply a description of the planned experiments explaining the methods to be used, the rationale for performing those experiments and their significance. After having advanced to candidacy, graduate students devote most of their time to research. This includes not only working in the lab, but also keeping up with the latest results in their field of specialization, preparing public presentations of their work (posters or seminars) and writing papers describing their results, which is the bread and butter of a research career. Although the time to graduate varies across programs and individuals, the average in the biomedical sciences campus is 5 years.
Why Join Our Program?
The choice as to which school to attend for graduate studies may be one of the most important career-related decisions in one's life, and our departmental home pages are designed to help prospective students make a well-informed decision. However, before reading further, here are some highlights of our program that, we feel, make it unique and provide an unparalleled educational experience in the exciting and growing field of neurobiology.
First of all, we are proud of the collegial environment of our department. Virtually all faculty members have collaborations with other laboratories inside and outside the department. For students, this means there are no barriers; the advice and expertise of members of other labs is freely available. This sense of community is an invaluable asset. Other noteworthy elements of the program are these:
- A specialized set of highly interactive courses in the subdisciplines of sensory neurobiology and developmental neurobiology, 2 of the fastest growing areas in contemporary neuroscience
- A flexible curriculum that allows students to tailor their coursework according to their background and future research and teaching interests
- Exposure and training in cutting-edge research methods during the first academic year by means of laboratory rotations
- Practical training in essential skills such as networking, grant writing, and effective oral presentation
- An emphasis on career development, with both formal and informal instruction on career options following successful completion of the PhD degree
- An interactive seminar series featuring talks by local, regional, national and international scientists
- Elective coursework in subjects such as Gross Anatomy, for those interested in developing their teaching skills in such highly sought-after areas
- A dedication to highly personalized mentoring, with a student:faculty ratio of nearly 2:1