Quantitative Biology Graduate Track
Quantitative biology applies modeling and analysis tools from mathematics, statistics, computer science and physics to study the workings of life, with the aim of developing predictive models that both can inform and be informed by empirical studies. Quantitative biologists seek commonalities in the principles that govern biological processes at a variety of scales of organization, from molecules and cells to organisms, populations, and ecological communities.
Scientists studying QBio address fundamental questions about the natural world, such as: How do physical forces govern the functioning of cellular machines like chromosomes and the cytoskeleton? How do organisms propel themselves through fluid media? How does the nervous system integrate sensory inputs to coordinate muscle action and navigate its environment? How does variation in the genome map to variation in organismal phenotype? How are ecological communities structured by interactions among individuals and populations? As a graduate student in Quantitative Biology (QBio) at Carolina, you will be at the forefront of interdisciplinary biological research. Quantitative biology continues to be in growing demand not only within academia, but also in public and private sector institutions conducting research in biotechnology, health, agriculture, and environmental sciences.
The goal of the Quantitative Biology graduate program is to prepare the next generation of PhD scientists who will probe biological processes with a knowledge base that transcends the boundaries of traditional disciplines such as biology, mathematics, computer science and physics.
At present, most scientists work in only one of these areas and rely upon collaborations with colleagues in the other area to complement their own expertise. We seek to train scientists who can not only critically analyze results from these different fields, but themselves work comfortably, and simultaneously, in multiple areas. From an engineering/physics perspective, a particular phenomenon may reflect the operation of chemical, electrical and/or mechanical processes. On the organismal scale, a phenomenon may reflect the operation of macro- and micro-organisms, climate and geography. What research at these different scales and in different systems share in common is an important role for quantitative modeling and data analysis.
Core training components are rigorous, but are combined with programmatic flexibility to accommodate the training goals of students with diverse backgrounds and interests. An explicit aim of the program is to bring students with physical, computational, and mathematical undergraduate backgrounds to the life sciences as well as to provide students from life-sciences undergraduate backgrounds with a broader and deeper quantitative skill set. The Quantitative Biology graduate program fosters extensive interactions among students and faculty through an emphasis on research.
The NIH-funded “Big Data To Knowledge” (BD2K) training grant at UNC may be of interest to students in the Quantative Biology program. BD2K supports students from a variety of units in the College of Arts and Sciences working on applications of Big Data to the Biomedical Sciences. BD2K trainees pursue a PhD in their respective disciplinary domain while simultaneously engaging in supplemental training through a blend of didactic, experiential, team science approaches.
Examples of the kinds of questions students in this program may address include:
Mechanics and Dynamics:
At the molecular scale, how do the mechanical properties of biological macromolecules, macromolecular complexes and ensembles (chromosomes, membranes and structures) and cellular surfaces influence their function? What are the mechanical forces that underlie the motion of macromolecules and their complexes and ensembles within cells? What promotes motion of individual cells? How are such forces generated and controlled? At the larger scale, how do the mechanical properties of tissues and organs influence organismal performance and function? How is sensory input used by organisms for locomotory control and maneuvering? How are nutrients effectively transported throughout circulatory systems?
Patterns and Collective Phenomena:
How are spatial and temporal patterns determined within cells and among cells in a group? What are the bases for numerical specification in biological systems? How does collective behavior arise in aggregates? What is an effective /efficient way of describing such behaviors and their regulation? What are the roles of thermal and athermal sources of fluctuations in these situations? At the organismal level, how does collective behavior emerge from a group of individuals? How does organism behavior interact with the physical environment to determine the patterns of diversity we see today and expect tomorrow?
Transport, Signaling and Communication:
At the cellular scale, how does information flow within cellular compartments, between compartments, within and among macromolecules and their ensembles and structures, and among cells? What are the relative roles of diffusion vs. active transport and of chemical signaling vs. mechanical linkage? What are the roles of mechanochemical signaling networks in motility, patterning and behavior? How is robustness built into the design of such networks? At the larger scale, how do organisms effectively transmit information between individuals using light, sound, and chemicals? What are the physical processes that allow for the efficient capture of prey or avoidance of predators? How do organisms use chemical and mechanical cues to find suitable habitats and mates?
A fundamental question in all areas of the biological sciences is how to connect multiple scales. For example, how do changes in cellular level processes affect the performance and fitness of an organism and how do these changes feed back to the cellular level? How do locomotion and dispersal ability affect population dynamics? How does the connectivity in the brain and the nervous system affect animal behavior? How does the small-scale structure of the capillaries and lymphatic system affect circulation throughout the body?
The following are the Ph.D. degree requirements for students in the Quantitative Biology (QBio) graduate program in the Department of Biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These supplement the requirements detailed in the Graduate School Handbook (http://handbook.unc.edu/) and the Guide to Theses and Dissertations (http://gradschool.unc.edu/etdguide/).
The Department of Biology offers a Ph.D. degree. It also offers two masters degrees: a Master of Science degree requiring independent research and a thesis, and a Master of Arts degree requiring a written library report. However, the Master’s degree programs only admit students on an individual basis in the following cases: 1. A request is initiated by a prospective student’s graduate advisor; and 2. A current student in the Ph.D. degree program requests to move to a Master’s degree program.
Students generally apply for admission to QBio and the UNC Graduate School directly through the Department of Biology. Students may also elect to join QBio after being admitted through the Biological and Biomedical Science Program (BBSP) and completing the first year requirements of that program.
- Computational neurobiology
- Geometric morphology
- Mathematical physiology
- Developmental biology
- Behavioral neuroscience
- Evolutionary genetics
- Mathematical ecology
- Theoretical evolutionary biology
- Circadian biology
- Functional genomics
- Mathematical cell biology
- QBio molecular biology
- Regulatory network modeling
- Systems biology
- Bayesian models
- Discreet time models
- Dynamical systems
- Finite element modeling
- Game theory
- Image analysis and microscopy
- Network analysis
- Numerical analysis/Scientific computing
- Differential equations
A. COURSE REQUIREMENTS:
Students will receive training in the application of quantitative methods to various disciplines of biological research through a course of study determined by the student, their graduate advisor, and the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). Courses should be selected in reference to the student’s choice of Oral Examination topics (see section D below) and anticipated thesis research. At the beginning of the first year the student will meet in an orientation meeting with the DGS and their major advisor(s) and discuss classes that the student should take and program requirements.
During the first two years, students must complete a minimum of 13 credit hours of coursework including: a minimum of six credit hours in lecture courses at the 400 level or above, one graduate seminar or journal club course, and six credit hours of BIOL 994: Doctoral Research and Dissertation.
Students with an interest in Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology are strongly encouraged to enroll in BIOL 891: Seminar in Biology each fall semester of their first two years.
Students must continue to register for 994 in subsequent Fall and Spring semesters until the degree is completed.
For a Master’s degree, a minimum of 30 hours of graduate credit is required with at least 18 credits in courses in their field of study. At least three hours of these courses must take the form of research and completion of the thesis (MS, BIOL 993) or library report (MA, BIOL 992).
B. GRADUATE ADVISOR:
Most Qbio students will select a graduate advisor before beginning graduate school. For students doing rotations in several labs, however, the advisor may not be selected until after rotations are complete. Generally, students choose an advisor by the end of their first year in graduate school. To change advisors or add a co-advisor, students must submit written request with justification to the Director of Graduate Studies for approval. In all cases, at least one advisor must be a regular member of the UNC Biology graduate faculty.
C. GRADUATE DISSERTATION COMMITTEE & COMMITTEE CHAIR:
The trainee must form a graduate dissertation committee to oversee and guide their research by the end of the third semester, and preferably by the beginning of that semester. This process is normally done in consultation with the student’s advisor(s).
The committee must have at least five members (three for MA and MS students), a majority being regular members of the UNC Biology graduate faculty. Additional committee members must be qualified to conduct the doctoral examinations and advise the student on their dissertation research. Active UNC faculty require no special approval, while others are subject to approval (pending review of their curriculum vitae) by the Director of Graduate Studies and Graduate School. Once each individual has agreed to serve, the list of the proposed members is submitted to the Graduate Student Services Manager for approval by the Director of Graduate Studies.
One member must be designated as chair of the student’s thesis committee by the beginning of the first thesis committee meeting. Selection of the chair shall be a collaborative choice between the student, the advisor, and the other members of the committee. The chair must be a regular member of the UNC Biology graduate faculty and not be the student’s research advisor, co-advisor, or spouse of the (co-)advisor. The chair will lead the meetings of the thesis committee and, at the conclusion of each meeting, synthesize committee members’ views on the student’s performance and progress into a summary to be verbally communicated to the student. The chair will also be responsible for completion of the Doctoral Exam Report Form.
It is recognized that research projects may go in unanticipated directions as they develop. Therefore, it is permissible to make changes to the composition of their committee. This is done by submitting a written request, with justification, to the Director of Graduate Studies and, upon approval, submitting a revised form the Graduate School.
The student is responsible for establishing the time and place of all committee meetings and exams, and ensuring that these occur at the times required by the QBio program and the Graduate School.
D. COMPREHENSIVE WRITTEN EXAMINATION:
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.
In preparation for the written exam, it is recommended that the student hold a committee meeting near the beginning of their second year to work out the plans for the exam. At this meeting, the student will, in conjunction with their committee, identify four areas of desired proficiency, with at least one from the biological and one from the methodological categories (Table 1). Other 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. 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. 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 to make up deficiencies. 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 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. Successful completion of the comprehensive written Ph.D exam fulfills this requirement for the MS and MA degrees.
- Table 1. Example areas of proficiency for the written comprehensive examination:
- BIOLOGICAL PROFICIENCIES
- Organismal Biology
Note that these are examples and not intended to constrain the areas of proficiency for the written examination; the final set of categories must be approved by the committee prior to the exam.
E. FEASIBILITY MEETING & ORAL EXAMINATION:
For Ph.D students, the oral exam will be held in the context of a committee meeting in which the student will lay out their plans for the research for the completion of their dissertation work. This should be done during their third year. Before this meeting the student will prepare a feasibility proposal written as a short grant proposal which consists of a project summary (limited to one single-spaced page), and a project description of up to eight single spaced pages (including figures and tables, but excluding the list of references cited). It should describe the research in enough detail for the committee to help with planning and to determine the likely success of the research plan.
The graduate dissertation committee must receive the research proposal at least one week in advance of the feasibility meeting. The format of the meeting is that the student will make a formal presentation of the research proposal followed by an in-depth discussion with the committee. At the conclusion of the meeting, a majority of the committee must approve of the oral defense of the feasibility proposal in order for the student to pass the oral exam and a separate vote will be taken to determine if the feasibility proposal is acceptable. The committee can pass the student for the oral exam while still requiring improvements on the feasibility proposal.
F. ADMISSION TO CANDIDACY:
To be admitted to candidacy, the student must have passed the written comprehensive examination, the oral examination, and have an acceptable feasibility proposal. Admission to candidacy is a requirement for certain awards and fellowships, so it is recommended that students strive to achieve it as soon as they are prepared to do so.
G. ANNUAL COMMITTEE MEETINGS & PROGRESS REPORTS:
Students are expected to meet annually with their graduate dissertation committee. The purpose of these meetings, which are in addition to those required for examinations, is for the committee to evaluate, and help facilitate, the student’s progress toward completion of the degree. A majority of the committee must be present for each meeting. In advance of the meeting, the student should provide each committee member with a written progress report. A progress report is typically 2-3 pages and will describe any research results obtained since the last meeting, courses completed, papers submitted, meetings attended, grants received, etc. Following the meeting, committee members who deem that the student is making satisfactory progress sign an Annual Committee Report Form, which the student submits to the Manager of Graduate Student Services. If a majority does not sign, this is brought to the attention of the Director of Graduate Studies. Exceptions to annual committee meeting requirements can only be granted by the Director of Graduate Studies.
It is the student’s responsibility to inform the Manager of Graduate Student Services when any of the above exams and meetings are to take place, making sure the appropriate forms are available for committee members to sign, and submit the signed forms.
H. PRE-DEFENSE COMMITTEE MEETING:
Before scheduling the final thesis defense, the student must meet with the graduate dissertation committee to provide a preview of the completed thesis. A majority of the committee must agree that the student is ready to defend (and sign the Pre-Defense Committee Meeting form) before the final thesis defense can be officially scheduled.
I. SUBMISSION TO DISSERTATION & FINAL THESIS DEFENSE:
In the semester of graduation, a student who has prepared an M.S. thesis, M.A. report, or Ph.D. dissertation will present a final defense, which is an oral exam consisting of a public seminar on the research, followed by a discussion of the work and their thesis/dissertation with the student’s graduate dissertation committee. The completed thesis or dissertation should be sent to the committee at least two weeks in advance of the scheduled defense. All committee members are expected to attend the defense (either in person or by remote participation). For both Master’s and Ph.D. students passing of the final exam and approval of the thesis is by an absolute majority vote of all members of the dissertation committee. The dissertation advisor is responsible for verifying that changes to the thesis/dissertation suggested by the committee have been made and then the committee chair can sign off on the approval form. After final approval (and ensuring the formatting matches the Graduate School guidelines), the thesis/dissertation must be submitted to the Graduate School for final processing.The defense must be completed before the Graduate School deadline within the semester that the student aims to graduate.
J. OTHER REQUIREMENTS:
The Department of Biology 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 semester.
Students must be registered during the semesters in which exams are taken. Residence credit of four semesters is required for a Ph.D. degree and two semesters for a Master’s degree. 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. The degree time limit for PhD students is 8 years from the date of registration and 5 years for a Master’s student.
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.
How to Apply
Students can apply directly for admission to the Qbio program or may elect to join Qbio after being admitted through the BBSP after doing rotations during their first year of graduate studies (please see the BBSP website for more information). For direct admissions it is essential that students contact potential faculty advisors prior to applying as applicants will only be considered if a faculty member is willing to advise that student. Potential faculty advisors can also offer advice on the best program to apply to if you are interested in joining their lab and give advice on the application process. Applicants therefore must identify prospective advisors prior to submitting an application and indicate this on the application.
Applications to Qbio will be considered in a holistic fashion with performance in classwork, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, statement of purpose and prior research experience all being considered.
The deadline for applications for Fall 2021 admissions is December 1, 2020. Applications will not be accepted after this date. Once applications are received, we evaluate them to determine who we will invite to visit our campus and interview. You must apply online through the UNC graduate college: https://applynow.unc.edu/apply/.
Required Application Materials
The online application must be completed in its entirety and the non-refundable application fee of $95 paid before the application is considered complete.
Applications that are not complete by the deadline will not be reviewed. The following items are needed in the application:
- 1. All materials required by the graduate college (available at http://gradschool.unc.edu/admissions/instructions.html)
- 2. A listing of one or more faculty with whom you wish to conduct research
- 3. A listing of the research area(s) in which you wish to work (via the Area of Interest/Specialization drop-down box within the application)
- 4. The Graduate College’s required “Statement of Purpose” must consist of an essay (1-3 pages) describing research interests, proposed approaches, and career goals
- 5. In addition to the required Statement of Purpose, provide an essay (1-3 pages) describing prior research experience and its relationship to research interests and career goals. This should be uploaded as a Supplemental Document
The GREs are not required for applications to our program but can be included if the applicant desires. Potential reasons for inclusion could be that the student feels they improve their application or their potential faculty advisor at UNC recommends including them. If you include GRE scores, they will be considered as part of a holistic review of your complete application (including classwork, research, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, and prior research experience). Graduate school guidelines are that GRE scores must be no more than 5 years old.
What happens after you apply…
Your application is reviewed by the departmental admissions committee. In January, we decide which applicants will be invited in for on-campus interviews. On occasion, applicants may also be “wait listed” at this point; they may be invited in for an interview later pending decisions made after earlier campus interviews take place. In March and April, final decisions are made and applicants are notified.
Note that applicants are admitted ONLY if a faculty member is willing to advise that student. You must therefore identify prospective advisors prior to submitting an application and indicate this on your application.
You can monitor you application through the online application system.
- 1. TOEFL or IELTS, required of all international students (except those from countries where English is the official language, or those who have received a degree from a US university) and cannot be over 2 years old. The Graduate School minimum acceptable score is 90 (TOEFL) or 7 (IELTS).
- 2. GPA minimum of 3.0 (guideline but again note that scores are considered as part of the entire application and weaknesses in one part of application can be compensated by demonstrated strengths in other aspects).
For Department Information:
Biology Graduate Admissions
CB#3280, 202 Coker Hall
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280
For Online Application for Admissions
CB#4010, Bynum Hall
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-4010