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School of Medicine

VCU School of Medicine

Welcome to VCU School of Medicine

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The Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) at VCU is as an entry point for students interested in doctoral training leading to careers in academic research, biotechnology, scientific policy-making, higher education, and many other areas. The BSDP oversees admissions for and recruits students into six Ph.D. programs within the School of Medicine. Five of these programs are departmentally based (Biochemistry, Human Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology, Pharmacology and Toxicology, and Physiology and Biophysics) and one program (Neuroscience) is interdepartmental. Additionally, students may elect a curriculum concentration in Molecular Biology and Genetics within several of these Ph.D. programs. Within each program, students follow a unique curriculum and have research training experiences that align with the interests of the students and individual faculty mentors.

Please follow the links below for more information about doctoral training in each of the Ph.D. programs associated with the BSDP.


*A curriculum associated with several of the Ph.D. programs.


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How it Works

The Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) coordinates the training of first year students that will ultimately earn Ph.D. degrees in Biochemistry, Human Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology, Neuroscience, Pharmacology and Toxicology and Physiology and Biophysics. Additionally, the BSDP coordinates the first year of training for students pursuing the Molecular Biology and Genetics curriculum in many of the departmentally-based Ph.D. programs. Students are typically in the BSDP during year 1, after which they join a laboratory and transition into their chosen Ph.D. program.

Year 1

BSDP students are guided through two key training steps during their first year: selection of their program/curriculum and matching with their dissertation laboratory. In anticipation of completing these two steps, students spend their first year taking courses while performing research rotations in laboratories in their area(s) of interest. The coursework and curriculum are chosen with the guidance of an academic counselor from one of the Ph.D. programs. Although each program is unique, the coursework will normally include a series of foundational and elective courses as well as seminars. Research rotations can be performed in a wide range of participating laboratories. Students should join both a Ph.D. program and a dissertation laboratory by the end of the spring semester of their first year.

Year 2 and Beyond

After selecting their Ph.D. programs and dissertation training labs, students continue taking courses (typically through the second year), continue participating in journal clubs and seminars (typically throughout their training), and initiate or expand independent, mentored research projects in their dissertation labs. Students identify faculty members to serve on their graduate advisory committees and take comprehensive exams administered by the individual programs typically toward the completion of the second year. Upon completion of these key steps, students focus on their research projects and research productivity (publishing articles, presenting at regional, national and international conferences, etc.). Ph.D. training culminates with each student writing and defending a dissertation, typically 5 years after initially enrolling via the BSDP.

Financial Support, Tuition & Fees

PhD Financial Support

Admitted Ph.D. applicants receive offers of financial support in the form of assistantships that typically include a stipend/salary, which is set by the School of Medicine at a foundational level of $27,000 per year. This amount includes funds to defray the costs of health insurance. Additionally, financial support covers tuition and fees for both Virginia-resident and non-resident students. Students with assistantships continue to receive support as long as they remain in good academic standing and make satisfactory progress toward completion of their degrees.

Appropriately enrolled U.S. citizens and permanent residents might be eligible for financial aid. For more information, please contact the VCU School of Medicine Financial Aid Office.

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All prospective Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) students must apply on-line through the VCU Office of Graduate Admissions by following this link. To apply to the BSDP, make the following selections in the "Intended Program of Study" section in the on-line application:

  • Entry Term--FALL YYYY
  • Intended level of study--Doctoral (PhD and EdD)
  • Planned Course of Study--Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal - School of Medicine - PHD

Applicants DO NOT apply directly to individual Ph.D. programs or departments for admission to the BSDP.

Applications to the BSDP should be completed (i.e. receipt of all forms, letters, transcripts, etc.) by February 1 of the anticipated enrollment year. Applications completed after this date will be reviewed only as remaining spaces permit.

Admissions Requirements

Applicants to the BSDP must have earned a baccalaureate (i.e. bachelor's) degree (or higher) in the biological, chemical or related sciences by the time of enrollment. Successful applicants will have completed undergraduate courses in biology, chemistry through organic chemistry, and mathematics often through calculus. Typically, we target applicants with grade point averages of 3.3 or higher, verbal and quantitative GRE scores at or above the 50th percentile, and substantial research experience in a biological, biomedical or chemical laboratory setting. International applicants must have a minimum score of 100 on the TOEFL or 6.5 on the IELTS. We take a holistic approach when evaluating applications, though, and strength in one or more aspects of an application can compensate for another area that is not as well developed. 

Application Materials

A completed application contains all information requested on-line, transcripts, general GRE scores (VCU code 5570), three letters of recommendation and a personal statement. Letters of recommendation should comment on the applicant's suitability for graduate training and on the applicant's research or other relevant experience. The personal statement should be 1000-1500 words and describe the applicant's:

  • anticipated Ph.D. programs/curriculum (if known)
  • research (or other relevant experience) including the overall project objectives and goals as well as an indication of the applicant's involvement in the project
  • main graduate research interests and a short list of prospective faculty mentors
  • rationale for pursuing Ph.D. training and any tentative career plans
  • other pertinent information that will help us evaluate the applicant as a prospective Ph.D. trainee including information on circumstances that may have hindered the applicant's progress or development

International applicants must provide TOEFL or IELTS scores (VCU code 5570). In addition, international applicants must arrange to have their academic credentials evaluated by a service that is a member of the National Association of Credential Evaluation Services (NACES) and must include the evaluation of their credentials in the application for graduate training. See VCU Graduate Admissions for more information.

Applicants should make every effort to submit all documents electronically to ensure efficient handling. Please contact VCU Graduate Admissions at vcu-grad@vcu.edu for instructions regarding materials that cannot be submitted electronically.

Application Review and Applicant Interviews

Applications to the BSDP are reviewed by a committee of faculty members from the seven participating programs. Review of completed applications begins in December and continues through February. Based on assessment of all components of the application, selected applicants are invited to interview on-site starting in January of the anticipated enrollment year. The interviews are a critical step in the admissions process during which members of the admissions committee learn more about the applicants and the applicants learn more about VCU. During the interviews, applicants should be prepared to discuss their prior training experiences at a depth appropriate for their level of education and experience.

Interview dates for 2018 will be:

  • Jan 5
  • Jan 19
  • Feb 2
  • Feb 16
  • Mar 2
  • Mar 16

Commitment to Enroll

Based on the outcome of the interviews and review of all other information by the Admissions Committee, selected applicants are offered admission for fall enrollment. Although we prefer that applicants confirm their commitment to enroll as soon as possible, applicants have until April 15th to accept a doctoral training position in the BSDP.


Please contact the Biomedical Sciences Doctoral Portal (BSDP) office or any of the seven BSDP programs for more information.


Contact Information


Mike Grotewiel, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean for Graduate Recruitment and Admissions
E-mail: michael.grotewiel@vcuhealth.org

Natalia O'Brien, M.M.
E-mail: natalia.obrien@vcuhealth.org


Tomasz Kordula, Ph.D.
Program Director
E-mail: tomasz.kordula@vcuhealth.org

Human Genetics

Rita Shiang, Ph.D.
Program Director
E-mail: rita.shiang@vcuhealth.org

Microbiology and Immunology

Cynthia N. Cornelissen, Ph.D.
Program Director
E-mail: cynthia.cornelissen@vcuhealth.org

Molecular Biology and Genetics

Michael McVoy, Ph.D.
Program Director
E-mail: michael.mcvoy@vcuhealth.org


John Bigbee, Ph.D.
Program Director
E-mail: john.bigbee@vcuhealth.org

Pharmacology and Toxicology

Hamid I. Akbarali, Ph.D.
Program Director
E-mail: hamid.akbarali@vcuhealth.org

Physiology and Biophysics

Christina I. Kyrus, M.B.A.
Program Coordinator
E-mail: cikyrus@vcu.edu

BSDP News and Highlights

VCU Career Services Bench and Beyond seminar to explore carreers

November, 2017:

As a doctoral student at Virginia Commonwealth University, you are on the forefront of research and knowledge. How do you want to put your training to work after you complete your degree? VCU Career Services supports your exploration of scientific career paths, both inside and outside of academia. Career Services is available to all graduate students on both the Monroe Park Campus and the MCV Campus through one-on-one career advising, workshops, networking events, and industry-specialized career fairs each semester.

more information...

Whether you are hoping to find a career in academia or outside of academia, we can help you identify the path that is best for you, and the tools you need to reach those goals. Translating skills acquired in your doctoral program into a digestible resume, cover letter, or simple conversation will be crucial for pursuing careers in academic research, industry research, scientific policy-making, teaching, and many other areas. We are here to help make your career search easier and help you leave VCU as a prepared and highly sought-after professional.

Some of the resources we offer to students include:
  -VCU BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) workshops
  -Career exploration through classes, workshops and one-on-one career advising
  -Professional networking with scientists inside and outside academia
  -Resume, CV, and cover letter development
  -Interview practice
VCU Career Services networking workshop with students
We offer several tools for our doctoral students to expand their knowledge of career resources beyond working with a Career Advisor. Versatile PhD is a tool available on VCU Career Services website that allows graduate students to learn about opportunities outside of academia and see real-life examples of the resumes, job descriptions, and interviews of those who have taken these paths. The Vault is another online tool student can use to watch recorded interviews with professionals in their prospective fields and read guides on what it is really like to work in their future role every day.

Career advising can help graduate students gain a realistic view of what to expect from various courses of study and career paths. Your Career Advisor can also provide essential support and motivation for long term success. VCU Career Services is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday 8 a.m.-7 p.m. for student appointments. Visit us in the University Student Commons, the Hunton Student Center, or stop by online at careers.vcu.edu.

Fulbright scholars Aneel Bhagwani and Javeria Aijaz

October, 2017:

Javeria Aijaz (pictured right) and Aneel Bhagwani (left) are Fulbright scholars pursuing Ph.D. degrees in the School of Medicine at VCU. Javeria is in her 3rd year of training in Human Genetics and Aneel is in his 2nd year of training in Physiology & Biophysics. Their dissertation research mentors are Drs. Gordon Ginder and Laszlo Farkas, respectively. Pakistan is the home country for both students, who were offered Fulbright awards after a rigorous selection process. Javeria and Aneel recently talked with Dr. Grotewiel about their Fulbright awards, how the awards are facilitating their doctoral training, and how being Fulbright scholars ties into their career plans.

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How did you become aware of the Fulbright Foreign Student Program and how did you become a Fulbright scholar?

"The Fulbright Program is very popular in Pakistan" explained Javeria. Aneel added that the Program advertises heavily via newspapers, radio, and other media to help identify prospective applicants, including him.

Although their paths to the U.S. were somewhat different, both Javeria and Aneel submitted rather extensive applications, were interviewed by Fulbright representatives in Islamabad, and ultimately were selected as Fulbright scholars. The Fulbright Program then helped identify graduate programs in the U.S. that fit their research and training interests. Fortunately, VCU was one of the options endorsed by Fulbright, which led to both Javeria and Aneel interviewing with current VCU faculty members via video conference several months before the start of their doctoral training. Both students had very strong applications and were admitted via the BSDP to pursue their Ph.D. degrees.

What were your experiences as you accepted the awards and transitioned to the U.S.?

Aneel was notified of his Fulbright scholarship only days before the start of his anticipated fall semester. Despite being provided with few details given the timing of his notification, he accepted the award and immediately packed for the U.S. Several plane rides and 34 hours later he was standing in the Richmond airport with two suitcases in hand wondering what to do next.

Javeria's experience was, fortunately, not quite as chaotic. She accepted her Fulbright award without any major problems, but her move to the U.S. was delayed about 3 weeks while waiting for the completion of international paperwork. Thus, she was not able to move to Richmond until her courses were well underway.

In the end, Drs. Jan Chlebowski and Hamid Akbarli, along with Mr. Harold Greenwald from the Graduate Education Office in the School of Medicine, made sure that both students were met at the airport, had temporary housing, and--in the case of Aneel--introduced him to American fast food.

Both students quickly engaged in their training, started their coursework, found more permanent housing, and connected with the faculty and students at VCU.

What is the role of the Fulbright Program in your training?

"We check-in with them from time to time", explained Javeria. "Once each semester" awardees provide Fulbright with updates on their training progress.

Both students have an advisor at Fulbright that is "very supportive" says Aneel.

Aneel and Javeria explained that the Fulbright Program provides awardees with various forms of financial support (stipend, books, etc.) and also supports awardee travel to several conferences during their training. Additionally, the Fulbright Program hosts a seminar/orientation during their first semester in the U.S. to help awardees navigate the cultural transition to the U.S.

What are your plans after completing your Ph.D. and how will the Fulbright Program facilitate your career?

Both Javeria and Aneel will return to their home country of Pakistan after completing their doctorates, a key provision of their Fulbright awards.

Javeria plans to pursue a career in medical practice or genetics research in an academic or hospital setting. In either case, she anticipates focusing on the genetics of hematological disorders, a diverse group of diseases that are understudied in Pakistan.

Aneel is interested in pursuing a career in stem cell research and translational medicine, likely within a hospital setting in Pakistan.

Being a Fulbright scholar can facilitate careers in many ways, both students explained. The Fulbright program helps trainees identify permanent professional positions and helps with the cultural transition back to the home countries of trainees, which can be "bigger than the transition to the U.S." says Aneel. Additionally, both students agreed that the prestige of being a Fulbright scholar can help open many doors throughout their respective careers.

We are delighted that Aneel and Javeria are performing their doctoral training at VCU as Fulbright scholars. Please see the website for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program for more information.

Davide Brohawn, Ph.D.

September, 2017:

A year beyond earning his doctorate in Human Genetics in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU, former BSDP student Dr. David Brohawn reflects on his time in graduate school and his career path.

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Why did you choose to enroll at VCU?

I chose VCU for several reasons. 1) VCU boasted a strong Human Genetics program, 2) From afar, I was impressed by Ken Kendler and his group's work in the area of psychiatric genetics, 3) I was and remain interested in genetic contributions to brain related disorders and that type of research is available at VCU, 4) I really enjoyed the Human Genetics faculty members - In addition to being accomplished, they were kind, easy going, and seemed to genuinely care about their students, and 5) the city of Richmond had an inviting, laid back culture full of different walks of life.

What were the factors that contributed to your success in graduate school?

I'd say the biggest factors were 1) my inherent fascination with genetics which kept me engaged and motivated to learn and work hard, 2) great teachers in the Human Genetics faculty that taught our course material enthusiastically, thereby providing me a good framework for crafting research projects, 3) weekly research seminars throughout graduate school that continually fed my interest in genetics research, and 4) being around other students that were similarly interested and enthusiastic about genetics, which kept me excited throughout my time in the program.

What were the issues you weighed as you opted to pursue a position at VCU after completing your Ph.D. in Human Genetics?

I decided I didn't want to pursue a career in academia, so my interest turned to jobs in the Clinical and Biotech sectors. I care deeply about improving treatments for different human conditions using genetics research. My position at the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at VCU emphasizes using current knowledge about the genetic contributions to different disorders (currently inherited cancer) to offer the best diagnoses and treatments to patients that we can provide today. It is very fulfilling to know my work day in and day out is helping people in need! I also wanted a job that allowed me to both generate and analyze next generation sequencing data, as opposed to choosing one or the other. My position in the Molecular Diagnostics Lab at VCU allows me to do that, so I am happy for that as well. My personal relationships I developed during graduate school here also played a large role in me wanting to find a job locally.

What are your immediate and long-term career goals?

My immediate career goals are to continue gathering experience leveraging next generation sequencing technologies to further our understanding of different diseases and improve treatment options for patients with those diseases.

In the future, I would love to transition over to the Biotech sector, mainly so I can work on the frontline either designing or applying cutting edge genetics research technology to further our understanding of genetic contributions to diseases. At the end of the day, I care most about developing better treatments, but I also love better understanding genetic contributions to biological processes for knowledge alone as well. 

Lesley Shurman head shot

June, 2017:

Lesley Schurman (VCU Pharmacology and Toxicology PhD student under the guidance of Dr. Aron Lichtman) wins the "Pre-Doctoral Presentation Award" at the International Cannabinoid Research Society conference for her poster entitled "Consequences of DAGL-alpha disruption on spatial learning and memory processes in C57BL6/J mice"!

more information...

Here is what Lesley had to say about her project and overall doctoral research experience:

How did you become interested in DAGL-alpha in learning and memory?

DAGL-alpha pharmacological inhibitors as well as genetically altered DAGL-alpha mice have only been available for a few years. Dr. Lichtman has completed seminal work examining how various components of the endocannabinoid system are involved in the regulation of learning and memory, and I was already using inhibitors of endocannabinoid biosynthesis to explore their impact on memory after brain injury for my PhD thesis work. It seemed like a natural question to also ask what the roles of these enzymes were in the normal brain, and we picked DAGL-alpha given its location on neurons. We used the combined opportunity of Dr. Lichtman's collaborative relationship with Dr. Benjamin Cravatt of the SCRIPPS Research Institute, using his DAGL-alpha inhibitor DO34 and DAGL-alpha knock-out mice, as well as having a very talented undergraduate student, Moriah Carper, who was completing a research internship with Dr. Lichtman, to start the work. Moriah initially looked at whether DO34 interfered with the extinction of memory and the work took off from there.

What was the behavioral paradigm you used to assess spatial learning and memory?

The Morris water maze. It was established by Richard G. Morris in 1981 and is one of the most widely used assessments of spatial learning and memory in behavioral neuroscience. The test is composed of a tank filled with opaque water where the animals, we use mice, must find a submerged platform to escape. The mice use shapes on the walls as cues to orient themselves, and normal mice show faster times and slower distances to the submerged platform over repeated trials across several days.

Any thoughts on why some forms of memory are dependent on DAGL-alpha while others seem to be independent of this enzyme?

My first thought would be that structure dictates function! DAGL-alpha may be used differently in the cellular signaling pathways that regulate one type of memory over another, or DAGL-alpha could be differentially present in various areas of the brain used for memory.

Lesley Shurman and her PHD advisor, Aron LichtmanHow did you and your advisor work together on the project?

Collaboratively, as always! The entire endeavor has been a great lesson for me in collaboration. Dr. Lichtman has provided guidance, but also his established relationships with leading scientists have provided us not only with access to the tools to manipulate DAGL-alpha, but also enabled us to look at how DAGL-alpha impacts memory at a cellular level by collaborating with Dr. Qing-Song Liu at the Medical College of Wisconsin to evaluate electrophysiological changes in Long-Term Potentiation.

What was your role on the project?

I put together the experimental design (with guidance from Dr. Lichtman) and mentored two research internship students (Moriah Carper, and Karen Richardson) that contributed to the work. I also completed several of the behavioral assessments, collected tissue samples, and will soon start work on a lipid-lipid extraction process. I'm particularly excited about how the work looks at three different levels of investigation; the whole behaving animal, changes at the cellular level, and also the molecular level.

What's the next step for the research project?

Within the next week or two we will be ready to quantify the molecular correlates of our memory assessments. Specifically, we'll be measuring the levels of endocannabinoids, their precursors and metabolites, in response to our DAGL-alpha manipulations in four different brain areas. We plan to measure a type of diacylglycerol (the substrate for the DAGL-alpha enzyme) that we have not previously quantified, so we've spent some time piloting the lipid extraction process with our Pharmacology and Toxicology Mass Spectrometry core (Justin Poklis). Long term I'd love to use a single-trial learning and memory behavioral test to tease apart how DAGL-alpha impacts acquisition versus consolidation to further understand the importance of this enzyme in specific memory processes. I'm also curious about whether the effects we currently see might be reversible with inhibitors of 2-arachadonyl glycerol (the product of DAGL-alpha) degradation. Finally, I'd love to see if that same reversal would also be affective in mice with age-related performance deficits, as well as measure their DAGL-alpha protein levels. That's a long wish list!