PhD Program: Biological Chemistry
Man in goggles using a test tube

Biological Chemistry

A wide variety of investigative opportunities


Program Overview

The Department of Biological Chemistry at the University of Michigan Medical School has played a prominent role in the development of the subject of biochemistry. The department dates from the appointment in the early 1900s of Dr. Victor Vaughan as the first professor of biochemistry in a medical school in the United States. Dr. Vaughan was an early member of the National Academy of Sciences and a founder of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

There are currently 48 faculty members, about half of whom hold joint appointments in related departments, divisions and institutes. Many faculty in the Department have been recognized with international, national and university awards. This includes two members of the National Academy of Sciences, three Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators, MacArthur Foundation Awardees, and Pew Scholars.


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Program Details

Faculty in Biological Chemistry are engaged in research activities that reflect the interdisciplinary nature of biological chemistry, a diversity which offers a large number of investigative opportunities for students.

The portfolio of research projects can be divided into four broad areas that include:

  • Regulation of gene expression
  • Signal transduction
  • Protein folding and processing
  • Structural enzymology

Investigators in the department bring to bear a range of technologies to address important biomedical questions from a biochemical perspective. This emphasis on the molecular mechanisms of life is further strengthened by our close ties and cross-appointments with the Life Sciences Institute, the Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience Institute, the Chemistry Department and the Biophysics Program on the main campus, making the Department of Biological Chemistry the centerpiece of a large and diverse biochemical community at the University of Michigan.


The graduate program leading to the PhD degree in Biological Chemistry is designed to provide outstanding training toward careers in research and scholarship in the broad area of biochemistry and molecular biology. This program exposes students to a spectrum of current research through innovative course structures that allow students the opportunity to design their own optimal curriculum. Students also attend seminars presented by prominent national and international scientists and present seminars on their own research.

Preliminary Examination

During the fall of the second year, students in Biological Chemistry write and defend orally an in-depth research proposal in an area of their choosing, which can include the general area of the student's dissertation research. A faculty preliminary examination committee works closely with the student in a step-by-step process from selection of a topic to the definition of specific aims and production of the final written proposal. Through this mechanism, students gain valuable experience in the preparation of a competitive research proposal and in the development of independence in scientific reasoning.

Teaching Requirement

PhD students in Biological Chemistry gain teaching experience by serving as a teaching assistant for one semester in courses offered by the Department of Biological Chemistry.

Expected Length of Program

Students in the PhD program in Biological Chemistry typically receive their PhD within 5 to 6 years.

Biological Chemistry students successfully compete for NIH training grant positions as well as numerous departmental, institutional, regional, and national awards.

These honors have included institutional awards such as:

  • Graduate Student Award for Excellence in Research and Service
  • The Barbour Scholarship
  • Rackham Predoctoral Fellowships
  • Rackham’s Distinguished Dissertation Award

National awards have been received from the American Heart Association, the Ford Foundation, and the National Science Foundation. Our students have also been the recipients of the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award and the prestigious P.E.O. Scholar Award, which is a one-time competitive, merit-based award for a senior female PhD.

Our students are also involved in a variety of activities and organizations while they are in our program:

The student-organized Biological Chemistry retreat, held at the beginning of the fall semester at the Kellogg Biological Station on Gull Lake in Western Michigan, provides students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty an opportunity to present and discuss research in a relaxed and informal setting. Students and postdocs give oral presentations, and all members of the department are invited to give poster presentations describing their research. All first-year PIBS and MSTP students are invited to attend

Seminar Program
The Department of Biological Chemistry sponsors a weekly seminar program that attracts speakers of international reputation. Students can participate in the selection, invitation and hosting of speakers for this seminar series

Poster Session for Rotation Students
Students who have rotated in Biological Chemistry labs are invited to present their research at poster sessions held at the end of the fall and winter terms

Student Research Seminar
A bi-monthly event organized for and by students only, with lunch provided by the department, gives students the opportunity to keep in touch with their colleagues and to share scientific expertise and advice

Social Events
Events include a monthly Biochem Happy Hour of faculty and students to engage in an informal setting and the year-end holiday party

Over 513 of our graduates have pursued scientific careers in major academic, government and industrial positions. From 2000-2010, 87 students received their PhD in Biological Chemistry. Of these, eighteen currently hold faculty positions, thirty-three are conducting postdoctoral work, fourteen are research scientists in industry, and eight went on to earn medical or dental degrees.

Additionally, some of our students have pursued careers in scientific public policy, patent law, and clinical or scientific editing. Two graduates of the Department, Stanley Cohen, who discovered epidermal growth factor, and Marshall Nirenberg, who cracked the genetic code, are Nobel Laureates.

Creating an impact
Biological Chemistry

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