Skip to main content

The opportunity and excitement provided by research in the biomedical sciences has never been greater. With the sequence of the human genome and that of nearly every model organism in hand, the scientific community is poised to make great strides in our understanding of basic biological processes, and their relationship to disease. As a graduate student in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology (MCDB) at Carolina you can be part of the cutting-edge research that makes this such an exhilarating time.

Our faculty and students use a wide variety of modern approaches, including genomics, molecular genetics, cell biology, and biochemistry, to study basic biological processes. We excel in using model organisms, including single-celled organisms such as E. coli and S. cerevisiae, the plant Arabidopsis, and animals like C. elegans, Drosophila, Xenopus, zebrafish, and mouse. Learn more about our research and the program by following the links below.

To learn more about this discipline, see below:

Research Environment


The Department of Biology is composed of over 50 faculty actively engaged in research that spans the entire scope of modern biology, from the disciplines of cell, molecular, and developmental biology through the areas of ecology, physiology and behavior. The department as a whole forms a very interactive group, which fosters an environment emphasizing collaboration and resource sharing.

There are many formal and informal research ties among the diverse groups within the Department. A few examples within MCDB provide a glimpse of the range of relationships. The Bloom and Salmon labs share the sixth floor of Fordham Hall, and share an interest in mitosis and the mechanisms of chromosome segregation. They approach this problem from different directions, with the Bloom lab using the power of yeast genetics and the Salmon lab using innovative microscopy techniques to study vertebrate cells. This has lead to a very fruitful collaboration that has resulted in numerous publications, and has led to a situation where open doors join the two labs into a single unit. The Goldstein and Peifer labs share an interest in cell polarity, though they focus on different organisms and focused on different molecules. The Dangl and A. Jones labs share an interest in signal transduction events that underlie different aspects of plant physiology. Their different areas of expertise led to a collaboration to identify the molecule which induces an important event during bacterial pathogenesis. The Copenhaver, C. Jones, and Sekelsky labs are interested in meiotic gene conversion, and have a collaborative grant to study this process in Arabidopsis and Drosophila, through laboratory experiments and population genetic analyses. Many more informal ties also join different labs, including joint Drosophila meetings between the Duronio, C. Jones, Searles, Crews, Peifer, and Sekelsky groups, and joint C. elegans meetings between members of the Goldstein, Ahmed, and Lieb labs.


The cells shown in the figure are of two types: one are mesophyll cells containing chloroplasts that fluoresce red under IV light and the other are specialized vascular cells that have cell walls that fluoresce yellow under UV light. After hormone induction, the mesophyll cells will transdifferentiate synchronously into the vascular cells (from Groover and Jones, 1999).

The Department of Biology is embedded in a very strong university-wide research community. Our Department provides a bridge connecting the biological research conducted in basic science departments such as chemistry, physics, and computer science to the biomedical research community in the School of Medicine. There are numerous departments in the Medical school staffed by research scientists interested in the full array of scientific disciplines from biochemistry to cell biology to physiology. Because the medical school and the undergraduate campuses are directly adjacent, all of these scientists are located within a short walk of one another and of the biology department.

Formal ties between Biology and the School of Medicine include joint participation into three interdepartmental graduate training programs (the Curriculum in Genetics and Molecular Biology, the IBMS Program, and the Curriculum in Neurobiology) and in the joint post-doctoral training program of the Lineberger Cancer Center. These bring scientists from different departments together at scientific retreats and on student’s thesis committees. There are also numerous links based on scientific interests. These have led to collaborative efforts such as those between the Salmon lab and Keith Burridge in Cell and Developmental Biology, Bob Duronio and Yue Xiong in Biochemistry, and joint lab meetings between the Lieb Lab and Brian Strahl in Biochemistry. They also have resulted in the formation of local interest groups with participants in both Biology and in other Departments, such as those in cancer genetics, the cytoskeleton, Drosophila molecular genetics, yeast chromatin, and cardiovascular biology–these groups meet on a regular basis to discuss their research. Furthermore, the Department of Biology is part of a campus-wide Program in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology and the Carolina Center for Genome Sciences.


Our geographical location near the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina places us in one of the countries leading areas for cutting-edge research in biotechnology. Three major research Universities anchor the three points of the triangle: UNC-CH in Chapel Hill, Duke University in Durham and North Carolina State University in Raleigh. All are within an easy drive or bus ride, with Duke 12 miles and N.C. State 30 miles away. Thus UNC and Duke are no more distant than the medical school and main campus often are at other universities. The result is extensive interchange between the two campuses for seminars and joint lab meetings between groups sharing similar interests. The academic scientists are joined by a large number of corporate and government scientists in the more than 150 companies in Research Triangle Park (RTP), which is situated between the three campuses. RTP includes large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies including the U.S. headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, Bayer Health Care’s Biological Products Division, and Syngenta. The RTP also houses the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (one of the NIH institutes), as well as one of the main scientific units of the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, numerous start-up biotechnology companies like Paradigm Genetics and Trimeris add to the scientific community.

The academic, corporate and government scientists are active participants in many local interest groups, including the Triangle Arabidopsis Group, the “Triangle Smaller Eukaryotes (i.e. yeast) Meeting”, both of which meet at the centrally located North Carolina Biotechnology Center, and a monthly C. elegans supergroup meeting here at UNC. Together, these resources make the Triangle an outstanding place to be a scientist.

Training Philosophy

Regardless of whether your future leads you into academia, industry, or some other career option, as a graduate student you have two tasks: 1) to learn how to be a scientist, and 2) to obtain a broad training in many different areas of science. The Department of Biology at UNC provides a superb environment to carry out both of these tasks. The road to becoming a scientist involves learning to plan, carry out and interpret experiments. One of the best ways to obtain this sort of training is in work on a model biological system such as those studied in our department. The strengths of these model systems are the many tools available to attack a problem, allowing students to work at the cutting edge of biology. The boundaries formerly separated different disciplines have disappeared; one can no longer be simply a geneticist or just a cell biologist. Rather, one must attack a problem with all of the tools at hand. A student who carries out thesis work studying a fundamental biological problem in one of our labs will be exposed to a wide array of technological approaches.

All of our labs offer the opportunity to use genetics as one approach– genetics allows the researcher to ask the organism what molecules are important for a given biological process, without built-in biases on the part of the investigator. Our labs also offer the opportunity to attack problems with the tools of modern cell biology, using cutting-edge imaging equipment alongside colleagues who are pushing the limits in these areas. They also offer the opportunity to get your feet wet in biochemistry, asking about the function of and the interactions between molecules required for the process you are studying. Many of our laboratories have begun using the most recent genomics approaches also. Our students have an opportunity to carry out experiments in each of these areas, achieving the broad training they need to become independent scientists. This broad training is illustrated by the publication records of our recent students and the postdoctoral opportunities of which they have been able to take advantage.

In addition to lab work, our Department offers a number of other training opportunities. Students in our Department will spend the first year taking a set of courses tailored to their own interests and needs. They attend our weekly Department seminars, and also have an opportunity to attend the seminars in other Departments, Curricula, and programs on our campus and in the broader Research Triangle area. Our students are trained to present their work in yearly seminars for their fellow graduate students, and in yearly meetings with their thesis advisory committees. They also have the opportunity to present their work at National and International scientific meetings in their area of study.

Degree Requirements

The following are the Ph.D. degree requirements for students in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology graduate program in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Additional requirements are in the Graduate School Handbook and the Guide to Theses and Dissertations. If requirements change after you arrive, you may choose to follow the rules in effect when you arrived, or any subsequent set of rules in effect during your tenure at UNC.

It is your responsibility to stay in touch with your major adviser and graduate dissertation committee. Likewise, you are ultimately responsible for seeing that you comply with the regulations of the Department of Biology and the UNC Graduate School. Failure to comply may result in losing your financial support or in being dismissed from the program. You also need to keep the Graduate Student Services Manager and the Director of Graduate Students informed of committee meetings and qualifying exams as soon as they are scheduled with your committee.

4 courses during the first 2 years

  • 2 must be 3-hour (minimum) graduate-level lecture courses
  • 1 must be a seminar/journal club course
  • the 4th can be either a lecture or seminar/journal club course
  • Specific courses are NOT mandated.

Lecture courses should include two of the following major topic areas:

  • Molecular Biology (e.g. BIOL 632)
  • Genetics (e.g. GNET 621)
  • Cell/Developmental Biology (e.g. BIOL 649, BIOC 643, PHCO 740-742, PHCO 744, CBPH 850 & 851)
  • Biochemistry/Biophysics (e.g. BIOC 601)
  • Microbiology/Immunology (e.g. MCRO 614, MCRO 630, MCRO 635)
  • Other appropriate courses (Bioinformatics for example) can be selected in consultation with an advisor.

Attend weekly departmental seminar series

Dissertation Research:

Each semester that you are engaged in dissertation research you will enroll in a 900-level course (exact numbers change depending on your advisor). At the end of the semester you will need to complete a brief report of your research progress, have it signed by your advisor and submit it to the Graduate Student Service Manager. Click here for the report form.

The written and feasibility/oral exams described below together constitute a comprehensive examination of the student’s command of their field of study and of their planned thesis research. Together these exams should:

  • assess the extent and currency of the candidate’s knowledge in a comprehensive manner in their planned field of study;
  • discover any weaknesses in the candidate’s knowledge that need to be remedied by additional courses or other instruction;
  • Introduce and refine the student’s plans for doctoral thesis work; and
    determine the candidate’s fitness to continue work toward the doctorate.

Written Exam:

Ph.D. students will take a comprehensive written examination before the end of their second year. This exam will determine whether the student has a sufficient mastery of the general knowledge required to complete their dissertation successfully and a deep enough understanding of the broader discipline. The comprehensive written exam should be separated in time from the feasibility meeting. Students must be registered for their advisor’s 994 section in the semester when the exam is taken.

In preparation for the written exam, the student should hold a committee meeting in the fall semester of their second year to work out the plans for the exam. At this meeting, the student will, in conjunction with their committee, identify three areas of desired proficiency (related to Genetics, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics, and Plant Biology). Different proficiencies can be included if they are determined to be appropriate by the committee. The selected areas will serve as a focus for questions to be written by the appropriate committee members. In writing their questions, the committee should keep in mind that effective training in biology can result from a broader understanding of topics and techniques. The format of the questions, duration of the exam, and the materials to be used for preparation will be set by the committee at this meeting. A suggested format for the written exam has been provided but the committee can elect to deviate from this format.

Committee members will submit questions to the committee chair for distribution to the student. The student will then return their answers in the time period designated by the committee for evaluation by the committee. The committee may set up a meeting with the student for discussion, clarification, and evaluation of the results of the written exam.

In order to pass the exam, a majority of the committee must pass the student. The committee may also pass with stipulations for additional coursework or other actions including retaking one or two sections of the exam. The committee chair will notify the student with the results and any recommendations. If the student fails an exam once, they are allowed to retake the exam at a later date. If the student fails a second time, they are dismissed from the program and the UNC Graduate School.

For the MA and MS degrees, the comprehensive exam requirement will consist of a written exam with some differences in format from the Ph.D. exam. For this exam, each member of the graduate dissertation committee will submit to the committee chair one or more questions designed to be answered within a two-hour period per committee member. The full examination must be undertaken and completed within a two-day period. Each question will be graded by at least two members of the committee. Passing of the exam is contingent upon approval of two-thirds of the entire committee. This exam cannot be taken until all courses are complete or until the final courses are in progress. Students must be registered for their advisor’s 992 (MA) or 993 (MS) section in the semester when this exam is taken. Successful completion of the comprehensive written Ph.D exam fulfills this requirement for the MS and MA degrees.

Feasibility and Oral Exam:

The feasibility exam consists of the submission of a written research proposal which is followed by an oral examination before the committee. Students must be registered for their advisor’s 994 section in the semester when the exam is taken. This examination must be held before the end of the spring semester of the third year. This translates into approximately one year after the written exam. For the feasibility and oral exam, students write a feasibility proposal on their thesis topic in the NIH NRSA style. The proposal should have preliminary data that has been generated; however, the report should be primarily focused on the logic and feasibility of the project. The committee chair will also serve as chair for the oral examination meeting and help to make sure the meeting is kept to a reasonable length. All members of the student’s doctoral committee will examine the student. Grading will be pass or fail. A pass requires the approval of no less than 2/3 (in most instances 4 out of 5) of the committee. Click here for a more detailed description of the feasibility exam. After completion of the Feasibility Exam, students continue to have yearly committee meetings.

Please inform the Graduate Student Services Manager when any of the above exams and meetings are to take place as forms may need to be prepared.

Students are required to have a first-author (or co-first author) research paper (not a review) accepted in a peer-reviewed journal for graduation. Exemptions to this requirement are expected to be extremely rare and will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis by the Graduate Studies Committee and in consultation with the student’s advisor and thesis committee.

MCDB graduate students should plan to form their graduate advisory committee and hold a committee meeting by the end of their 2nd year in graduate school (by the end of their first year in the Biology program). A majority of the committee must be regular members of the UNC Biology graduate faculty (i.e. Professors, Associate Professors, and Assistant Professors of Biology, as well as a few additional UNC faculty who have been specially appointed by the Department; if you are unsure of the status of a prospective committee member, then please consult the Graduate Student Services Manager). After satisfying this majority requirement, additional committee members can include anyone is qualified to conduct the doctoral examinations and advise the student on their dissertation research. People who are active UNC faculty require no special approval. People who are NOT active UNC faculty may serve as committee members, subject to approval first by the Director of Graduate Studies, then by the Dean of the Graduate School. To request approval, submit the proposed committee member’s curriculum vitae to the Graduate Student Services Manager.

Graduate student thesis committees will be chaired by a committee member who is a regular member of the Biology department and who is NOT the student’s primary thesis advisor (or co-advisor). Selection of the chair shall be a collaborative choice between the student, the advisor, and the other committee members. The chair will lead the meetings of the advisory committee. At the conclusion of each committee meeting, the chair will synthesize all committee members’ views on the student’s performance and progress into a summary statement and verbally communicate the summary to the student. As required by the UNC Graduate School, the chair will be responsible for completion of the Doctoral Exam Report Form. These are the sole and entire responsibilities of the chair. Of the countless responsibilities that do not fall on the chair, only three will be listed here. First, serving as chair does not convey greater responsibility for scientific oversight of the student’s dissertation research; this is the responsibility of the research advisor. Second, aside from conducting committee meetings in a professional manner, serving as chair does not convey greater responsibility for mediating any interpersonal conflict. Third, the chair is not responsible for establishing the time and place of committee meetings, or ensuring that committee meetings are held at required intervals; these are the responsibility of the student.

Thesis committee meetings shall begin by the graduate student being asked to step out of the room to allow committee members to discuss the student’s progress among themselves. Upon being invited back into the room, the student’s primary thesis advisor (or co-advisors) will be asked to step out to allow the student to discuss their progress with the committee. The advisor (or co-advisors) will be invited back in and the full meeting will commence. At the conclusion of the meeting the committee may (but is not required to) ask the student to step out of the room again so that they can reach consensus.

After completion of the Feasibility Exam, students continue to have yearly committee meetings. Students must schedule a pre-thesis defense meeting at least 2 months prior to their anticipated thesis defense date, and prior to setting the date.  The committee must give the student permission to defend. Once this date is set, please inform the Graduate Student Services Manager. The defense consists of a written thesis that has been read and approved by the committee, a public seminar describing the thesis work, and a private oral defense of the thesis work with the committee.

In addition to coursework, attending seminars also greatly helps students gain exposure to broader research and new ways to ask and answer scientific questions. It is strongly recommended that students attend the MCD-Qbio Minute hour seminar and attend relevant Biology departmental seminars.
The dissemination of results via presentations is also an important skill to develop in graduate school. In addition to a final public defense, the student will also present a 20 minute talk during their second year and a 40 minute talk during their fourth year in the MCD-Qbio Minute Hour seminar series (or other UNC series if approved by their committee and/or the director of graduate studies).

The Department believes strongly in the value of teaching, and, therefore, requires each student to serve as a teaching assistant (TA) in a course in the Biology Department for at least one Fall or Spring semester.

To maintain eligibility to continue in The Graduate School, a student must not receive a grade of F or F*, or receive a grade of L in nine or more credit hours.

Students must be registered during the semesters in which exams are taken. Residence credit of four semesters is required for a Ph.D. degree. The degree time limit for Ph.D. students is 8 years from the date of registration.

Refer to the Graduate School Handbook for additional information regarding required registration, doctoral degree requirements, and other relevant information.
If degree requirements change following admission, the student may choose to follow either the rules in effect upon admission or any subsequent set of rules in effect prior to reaching candidacy.

Faculty and students are strongly encouraged to follow these recommended deadlines. If a student is in danger of falling behind these deadlines, then the student must petition the Director of Graduate Studies for a deferral (which may or may not be granted). Any such petition must be submitted in writing (including email) in the first two weeks of the semester indicated in the timeline. Students who are behind the deadline (including annual committee meetings) will be lower in priority for TA-ships (relative to students in the Biology graduate program who have met the required timeline, but not relative to other students, e.g. those from outside Biology).

Orientation MeetingSummer after joining lab
Course Requirements4 courses during first two years at UNC
Form graduate committeeBefore the end of 2nd year (1st year in Biology)
Written ExamBefore the end of 2nd year
Oral ExamBefore end of 3rd year
Feasibility MeetingBefore end of 3rd year
Annual committee meetingsOnce a year after qualifying exams are completed
Pre-Defense meeting2 or more months prior to defense
Defense of DissertationRecommended by end of 5th year
Publication requirementRequired for graduation

Financial Support

As a student in the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology program at UNC, you will receive a competitive stipend through a research assistantship funded by your PIs grants or through a teaching assistantship if your PI does not have sufficient grant funding. Typically, these sources of support are provided throughout your graduate career as long as you remain in good academic standing. Finances of individual labs may vary, so it is important that funding packages are discussed in detail during the recruitment process between the prospective advisor and student, and that realistic expectations of funding are shared. 
The Graduate Funding Information Center ( is a great resource that can assist current and prospective graduate students find appropriate funding opportunities. Through some of the funding databases, you can set up alerts to notify you when new opportunities are available based on information you provide.


Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants are paid monthly for the academic year, usually beginning at the end of August and continuing through mid-May. Those who will be supported as Research Assistants during the summer will continue to be paid monthly, while those who will be supported as Teaching Assistants during the summer are paid at the end of each summer session. Students on University payroll are required to have their paychecks automatically deposited to their bank account by completing a direct deposit authorization form via ConnectCarolina. Students on Graduate School fellowships are generally paid in lump sums at the beginning of the semesters (and/or summer).

As part of your assistantship or fellowship, you will receive an award to cover your full tuition and mandatory student fees. Health insurance is also provided and your monthly premium is covered by your stipend’s funding source. You must remain fully enrolled and maintain good academic standing to qualify for your assistantship and the benefits outlined above.

Supplies and Travel Support

As the departmental budget permits, several awards are offered annually through the Biology Department to help graduate students with research expenses (generally a few hundred dollars per year). The competition for these awards is normally announced in April.

In addition, the UNC Graduate School awards transportation grants. These grants cover travel expenses only and are available for doctoral and masters students presenting research papers at international, national, regional academic conferences or meetings of professional societies. Students may receive this grant only once. Applications are considered throughout the year and must be submitted prior to travel. For more information, visit the UNC Graduate School website.

How to Apply

For students interested in research in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology our application, interview, and admission process is now handled through the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program. Note that students interested in Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology (EEOB) must apply through a different mechanism (refer to the EEOB application page for information).  Students interested in the interface of MCDB and EEOB should contact one or more prospective faculty advisers for guidance on how to apply.

Click here to begin the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program application process.

The Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP) is unified way for prospective students interested in the Department of Biology or any of the other 12 participating graduate programs in the biological and biomedical sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to apply for graduate study. BBSP acts as a common portal through which students begin their graduate studies at UNC-CH. Students admitted to UNC-CH through BBSP initially have no commitment to any specific Ph.D. program. At the end of the first year students select a thesis research lab and join a PhD program or department (usually one of the programs in which your faculty preceptor is a member). We are excited about the flexibility this program offers to our students during their first year. For a more complete description of the application process visit the BBSP Apply page.

While BBSP students have the freedom to choose coursework and rotations from any of the participating programs, including the Department of Biology, if you are interested only in research in Molecular, Cell and Developmental Biology in the Department of Biology PhD program you should still apply through BBSP. You will then begin fulfilling the Department’s degree requirements (e.g. taking the appropriate courses) in your first year, and will rotate with faculty in the Department of Biology.


Find faculty doing research in: