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Rice to launch new doctoral program in systems, synthetic and physical biology

By Frances Hessel     9/19/12 7:00pm


Starting in the fall of 2013, Rice will offer a new doctoral program in systems, synthetic and physical biology that was officially approved by the Rice Senate on Sept. 12. The program was originally envisioned by assistant professor of bioengineering Oleg Igoshin, professor of statistics Marek Kimmel, professor of biochemistry and cell biology Yousif Shamoo, and other professors from the Wiess School of Natural Sciences and the George R. Brown School of Engineering. 

With foundations in quantitative and life sciences, the program aims to make important advances in bioscience with work from students and 34 faculty members who specialize in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, statistics or physics. An additional goal is to expand research, according to Igoshin. 

"Another goal of the program is to enable us to do research we couldn't do before," SSPB Director Michael Deem said. "We will have more students to work with, and we hope to attract additional funding from the federal government or from private foundations."

This program is the first of its kind in the United States, Igoshin said. 

"This is the first program in the country that has 'synthetic' biology in its name, and this name is very much related to its foundation," Igoshin said. "We see this new biology as a system: a whole with interacting parts."

The program will feature one core course open for undergraduate enrollment but will otherwise be exclusively open to graduate students. It will be highly selective because the faculty are looking to recruit eight first-year graduate students per year, Deem said. 

According to Igoshin, the program will be highly interdisciplinary and will include faculty members from eight departments in the schools of engineering and natural sciences. 

"We observed [that] the large expansion of Rice faculty [who were] doing biology-related research ... were not necessarily from the biology department, but from computer science, statistics, biological and chemical engineering," Igoshin said. "There was a good resource of talented people to create such a program."

According to Igoshin, this program is designed to develop a new approach toward the study of biology. 

"Systems and synthetic biology seeks to understand how biological systems work," Igoshin said. "We build them, take them apart, reconnect them in natural and unnatural ways, and through this process try to discover how to create something exciting like a new way to synthesize a chemical or a drug."

According to Igoshin, the doctoral program's foundations partially stem from the Faculty Forum on Rice Initiatives in 2010, when three university-wide task forces were created by Provost George McLendon: Biosciences and Human Health, Energy and the Environment, and International Strategy. 

According to the program's website, the past few decades have been part of the Information Age, and the upcoming few will most likely be biological ones in which organisms are engineered to produce new medicines, fuels and materials. 

Jones College freshman Daphne Chiao said she is inspired by the chance to do cutting-edge research. 

"I love biology and am excited by the idea of trying to find cures for diseases we can't currently cure, so this seems like an exciting program in which to participate in the newest approach to modern science," Chiao said. 

Deem was appointed head of the program in July 2012 by Dean of the School of Engineering Edwin Thomas. 

"We are seeking to develop an exceptional graduate program," Deem said. "We are interested in specifically attracting students interested in collaborative work who otherwise might not come to Rice."

Chemistry graduate student Bo Shuang said he believes the program will definitely attract passionate students. 

"I think biology is a huge upcoming field and market in the U.S., so for science majors who specialized in a single subject, this will help them apply their knowledge in multiple disciplines," Shuang said. 

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