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Bioscience research at CMU

New degree crosses boundaries

Departments, college team up for biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology program

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

​Biochemistry, cellular biology and molecular biology happen on a small scale, but bringing them together for a new Central Michigan University graduate degree program took some big-picture thinking.

Specifically, it took months of collaboration by CMU's department of biology, department of chemistry and biochemistry and College of Medicine, said Xantha Karp, assistant professor of biology. Karp chairs the committee administering the new postgraduate program, which is signing up its first students.

"Our program is somewhat special in Michigan in that it brings together multiple departments within a single program," Karp said.

"Bringing together faculty and students from biology, biochemistry and medicine results in outstanding opportunities for students to study and investigate important questions in basic biomedical science," said Jane Matty, acting dean of the College of Science and Engineering, which houses the chemistry and biology departments.

"The program was created to take advantage of CMU's broad expertise in biomedical sciences and our excellent laboratory facilities to train new scientists for exciting careers," she said. "The program will provide rigorous scientific training in subject matter and research methods in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology."

Two birds with one stone

The new biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology program targets two pressing needs: postgraduate options for life-science students, and student research partners for faculty, particularly in the College of Medicine.

Because med students are in a professional program and not a traditional graduate school, Karp explained, they don't have the same research obligations.

"Those students are there to learn to be medical doctors. Some of them do a little bit of research, but that's not their primary role there," she said, "whereas medical school faculty are expected to be not only teaching those med students but actively engaged in research.

"There's a real need for graduate students who can do a research-based thesis in their labs," and the BCMB program calls for exactly that.

Meanwhile, a lot of undergraduates want to "get to that next career stage" by earning a master's degree or Ph.D. at CMU, Karp said.

The program's research emphasis and in-demand subject matter tee up a number of career possibilities, according to Karp. For Ph.D. students, options include biomedical positions in academia, government labs and private companies; education; consulting firms; nonprofit organizations and more. The master's degree program prepares students for biotech jobs or entry into professional schools in health professions, including medicine.

And the job outlook is good.

"In Michigan and nationally," Karp said, "employment predictions for careers in the life sciences show a projected increase over the next eight years ranging from 4.5 percent to 19 percent."

"I believe the program is the best opportunity for me to become a researcher. I will only get out what I put in, but I expect to have a chance to gain the skills and research experience needed to produce impactful publications." — Jacob Bahry

Strong selling points

The BCMB webpage casts a wide net for candidates, promoting the opportunity to "conduct high-impact, original research with award-winning faculty mentors in state-of-the art facilities, all while residing in the beautiful (and affordable) state of Michigan."

The message goes to the heart of CMU's identity: big enough to matter, small enough that each student matters.

On the one hand are top-notch facilities like the new Biosciences Building and its microscopy, biosafety and radioisotope labs, among others; and research on topics ranging from cancer and infectious diseases to neuroscience and developmental biology.

On the other hand are individualized educational plans with committed advisors, including Karp, directly involved with students' research and academics.

The initial enrollment goal is around five to 10 students in the master's and doctorate programs together, with more students joining each year for an eventual total of around 20 or so.

Faculty from all three academic departments will teach and advise — in fact, advisors are paired with students even before the students are accepted into the program. Together, they identify a personalized program of elective courses; only a couple of classes are required for all students.

That personal connection is important to Jacob Bahry, a fifth-year biomedical sciences major from Shelby Township, Michigan.

"It starts with my research mentor, Dr. Shasta Sabo," he said, "but other factors contributed to make me want to commit to CMU, such as the many other great faculty members, the comfort of Mount Pleasant and the investments the school made over my time here to get the medical school accredited and to build the Biosciences Building." 

Bahry will work toward his doctorate in BCMB.

"I believe the program is the best opportunity for me to become a researcher," he said. "I will only get out what I put in, but I expect to have a chance to gain the skills and research experience needed to produce impactful publications. Hopefully I have a little luck, as well!"

For those wishing to join the program in fall 2018, preference is given to applications submitted by February.

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