Biological Sciences

Program Category: PhD Programs
Chair: Harmen Bussemaker
Directors of Graduate Studies: Iva Greenwald, and Ron Prywes
Degree Programs: Full-Time: MA, MPhil, PhD

The Department of Biological Sciences offers a program of advanced study in the areas of molecular and cellular biology, neurobiology, physiology, immunology, genetics, structural and computational biology, developmental biology, molecular biophysics, bioinformatics, and chemical biology.

The graduate program provides each student with a strong background in contemporary biology and an in-depth knowledge of one or more of the above areas. During the first year, all students take an intensive core course that provides a solid background in structural biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, and molecular biology. Two additional elective courses are required, which are generally completed in the second year. A departmental colloquium is held each Monday at noon throughout the academic year. All graduate students are expected to attend regularly. Additional research seminars are also presented frequently by visiting scholars.

Research in laboratories of the department's or affiliated faculty is integral to the program. Students begin laboratory rotations in the first semester of the first year and can do three rotations in their first calendar year.  By the end of their first year, students are expected to choose a mentor. Experience in teaching is deemed an important part of PhD training: in preparation, students participate in a workshop in teaching technique at the start of their second year.

Current research interests of the faculty span many areas of modern biology and involve species from prokaryotes to humans. Some specific fields of interest include the regulation of gene expression, mRNA processing, mechanisms of signal transduction, oncogenes and tumor suppressors, the structure and function of enzymes and multi-protein complexes, the genetics of invertebrate development, the genetics and biogenesis of mitochondria, development of the nervous system, neuronal differentiation and degeneration, ion channel structure, function, and regulation, and mechanisms of transduction in the olfactory system.

Laboratories for PhD research

The Department of Biological Sciences is located on the Morningside campus in the Sherman Fairchild Center for the Life Sciences. The building provides nearly 60,000 square feet of laboratory space for the department's laboratories, as well as extensive shared instrument facilities, including extensive sophisticated microscopy, x-ray diffraction, FACS (fluorescence activated cell sorting) real-time PCR analysis, mass spectrometry, infra-red scanning, phosphoimaging, and microinjection; as well as housing and care of research animals, including transgenic mice.

The opportunities for PhD student thesis research include not only laboratories in Biological Sciences and Chemistry but also laboratories in various departments at Columbia's medical school, College of Physicians and Surgeons. Additionally, specialized facilities at the American Museum of Natural History, Barnard College, and the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons are available to students and staff of the department.

See the department's list of PhD program faculty thesis sponsors, their primary field of research, and their specific interests.

Departmental Programs

The Department of Biological Sciences maintains research and teaching programs in molecular and cellular biology, structural biology, neurobiology, and developmental biology. The laboratories involved cooperate and collaborate in various combinations, and substantial overlap exists among the groups responsible for the different programs. In this way diversity is combined with coherent overall graduate training and with the advantages of interaction among clusters of researchers with common interests and related expertise. Considerable interaction also takes place with the other basic science departments on Columbia's main campus and with those at the medical school campus.

Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology, and Molecular Genetics

Current research interests of the faculty include the structure, function, and control of genes in eukaryotic cells (yeast, nematodes, insects, and mammalian cells); molecular genetics of mitochondria; processing of RNA; control of cell shape and movement; dynamics and functions of microtubules during myogenic differentiation and cell cycle progression; virus-host cell interactions; cell biology and ultrastructure of neurons; growth control; the molecular biology of cancer; and signal transduction.


The neurobiology group shares interests in the cell biology and development of the nervous system. Its research covers a variety of vertebrate and invertebrate systems. Current interests of the faculty include genetics and developmental biology of nervous tissue; chemical communication, receptors, and ion channels; behavioral neuroendocrinology; sexual dimorphism; genesis of neuronal specificity and synaptic connections, and cell biology and physiology of odor receptors.

Developmental Biology

Current research interests of the faculty include gene expression in embryos, cultured cells and neoplasms; hormonal regulation of gene expression; cell differentiation in nervous tissue and muscle; the development of ion-channel properties in synaptogenesis; the control of neuronal form and connectivity; the establishment and maintenance of cell polarity; and selective cell death.

Structural and Computational Biology and Molecular Biophysics

Current research interests of faculty engaged in structural and computational biology include a variety of signal transduction proteins, molecular chaperone proteins, several enzymes of biological and medical importance, proteins involved in transmembrane transport, and components of the bacterial secretion apparatus. The focus of the research activities is on understanding the biological functions of these proteins in terms of their atomic structures, their kinetic and thermodynamic properties, and changes in conformation and folding as they function in a cellular environment. Special emphasis is on the determination of protein structures by X-ray crystallography, and changes in protein structures by atomic force microscopy and other single molecule approaches. State-of-the-art X-ray diffraction and high-speed computing facilities are available in the department, and two major synchrotron X-ray sources are located within easy driving distance.

Joint Training in Biophysics

Faculty from the Departments of Chemistry and of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics have joined the Department of Biological Sciences in coordinating efforts to recruit students interested in entering or pursuing studies in biophysics.

Special Admissions Requirements: 

Undergraduate training in one of the natural or physical sciences is required. It is also desirable that students have had at least a year of calculus, as well as courses in organic and physical chemistry, physics, genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology. Limited deficiencies in this background may be made up while in graduate school.

Acceptance to the program is determined by a student’s academic background as well as consideration of prior research experience. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is not required.

In addition to the requirements listed below, all students must submit one transcript showing courses and grades per school attended, a statement of academic purpose, and three letters of evaluation from academic sources.

All international students whose native language is not English or whose undergraduate degree is from an institution in a country whose official language is not English must submit scores of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or IELTS.

For more information, refer to our Admissions Information and Frequently Asked Questions pages.

Additional Information:

Beginning on December 1, the Department of Biological Sciences will evaluate applications to the PhD program in the order in which they were submitted. All applications submitted prior to the final deadline will be evaluated, but applicants submitting their applications earlier are more likely to be invited to the recruitment open houses. The first of these will take place in late January, the second in early March.

Deadline for Fall Admission: Thursday, December 9, 2021
Resume Requirement: Yes
Writing Sample: No
GRE General: No
Degree Programs: Full Time
Letters of Recommendation: 3


All students in the program receive a funding package consisting of tuition, fees, and a generous stipend. These fellowships are awarded in recognition of academic achievement and in expectation of scholarly success. Teaching and research experience are considered an important aspect of the training of graduate students. Thus, graduate fellowships include some teaching and research apprenticeship.