August 19, 2005

New Ph.D. program to boost genetics research

New Ph.D. program to boost genetics research

The incoming crop of graduate students has a new option — the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. in Human Genetics. The program was officially launched during the last academic year and enrolled 10 students from among those already pursuing genetics-related research.

The time is ripe for such a program, said Scott M. Williams, Ph.D., director of graduate studies in Human Genetics, citing the explosion of genetics data in recent years.

“Our goal is to train students to explore the questions of genetics, particularly as they apply to human disease,” he said.

“Human genetics research at Vanderbilt has been expanding, and the students who were doing this kind of research did not have an academic program consistent with their research,” he added. “We wanted to put together a program that would serve our students and bring together diverse genetics faculty members as a cohesive group. I think the program is doing a good job on both counts.”

The program includes about 35 faculty members from multiple Medical Center departments and from the department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science, Williams said.

Alison Motsinger, a graduate student in the new program, said the program will be an important factor in recruiting students. Motsinger chose to work with Marylyn D. Ritchie, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, knowing that the new program was in the works. Ritchie's group focuses on computational biology and developing new statistical methods for analyzing genetic data.

“Without the Human Genetics program, the only other option for our laboratory would be a Ph.D. in Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, which would mean taking a lot of classes that are not related to the things we're studying,” Motsinger said. “I think this program will be very important for recruiting students to the genetics laboratories here.”

The Human Genetics program joins the Neuroscience graduate program as an interdisciplinary training program that spans the Medical Center and University.

“I think the interdisciplinary approach is novel and is something that will make Vanderbilt's program stand out when prospective students are looking at graduate schools,” Motsinger said. “Many of the students in the program are actually working on a separate Master's degree in Statistics, supported by the genetics program. The program takes the term 'interdisciplinary' very seriously.”

Students in the genetics program will complete coursework in Human Genetics and Fundamentals of Genetic Analysis — two courses that have been offered as electives in the past — and may choose from new courses including Genetics of Model Organisms. This course, directed by Michelle Southard-Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Cell & Developmental Biology, introduces students to applications, advantages and feasible approaches with commonly used model organisms. Topics covered range from yeast, C. elegans (worms) and Drosophila (fruit flies) to zebrafish and mice, with emphasis on acquainting students with online databases and bioinformatics resources that support genetic analyses in each model system.

Williams said the program's courses are attracting students and even faculty members from a variety of backgrounds.

A unique aspect of the program, Williams said, is a clinical rotation. Students are strongly encouraged, though not required, to join a physician from the Division of Medical Genetics in evaluating patients or to spend time in the molecular diagnostics or newborn screening laboratories.

“These experiences give the students a flavor for the reasons we're doing our research,” Williams said.

For more information about the program, go to