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The Future of Biomedical Education: Part Three

Aerial view of downtown Baltimore.

Traditionally, Ph.D. training has focused on developing scientists with a specialized focus in a particular field. However, today’s trainees need an education that prepares them to understand the interconnectedness of concepts within different disciplines as well as learn techniques and tools to investigate complex problems.1,2 Faculty mentors, students and administrators are discussing ways to adapt curricula to better prepare trainees for the changing field of biomedical research.

This fall, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine addressed these challenges by introducing the XDBio Cross-Disciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences, an exciting and different twist on the traditional Ph.D. training environment.

About the XDBio Program

The XDBio graduate program links together various disciplines in biomedical science, including biology, engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry and medicine. As such, each XDBio student will be:

  • Co-mentored by a pair of advisers selected based on the student’s research interests. For example, a student interested in drug discovery could work initially in a chemistry laboratory to synthesize small-molecule therapeutics. Following this, they would move to a cancer biology laboratory in which they could test the efficacies of these new drugs in cell lines or animal models. This model allows trainees to customize their research and have ownership of their project with the guidance of experts in different fields.
  • Involved across the university system. The student’s anchor mentor will be in the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, while their second adviser can be from any school in the Johns Hopkins family (the schools of medicine, public health, arts and sciences, and engineering). This gives trainees the unique opportunity to be exposed to a variety of biomedical perspectives during their training.

Through its curriculum, XDBio will support trainees’ problem-solving skills, such that they can integrate techniques from multiple disciplines in a co-mentored thesis project, with the goal of developing an independent group of scientists ready to launch their own careers. The collegial nature of this program will allow the students and advisers to expand upon preexisting collaborations and even promote new collaborations across the university.

Nontraditional Funding for a Nontraditional Ph.D. Program

Within a traditional funding structure, it can be difficult for young scientists to pursue independent careers. In 2012, the National Institutes of Health “Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report” noted a reduction in the amount of funding given to younger scientists, as well as an increase in the average age at which an investigator receives his or her first R01 grant.3 In 2015, Ronald Daniels, president of The Johns Hopkins University, began to make policy reforms to encourage younger talent to be funded through the Catalyst and Discovery awards at Johns Hopkins as part of his Ten by Twenty plan. Daniels said that “without their own funding, young researchers are prevented from starting their own laboratories, pursuing their own research and advancing their own careers in academic science.”3

XDBio graduate students will benefit from a different funding structure than that of traditional biomedical Ph.D. programs. “Graduate students are funded in many different ways,” says Peter Espenshade, associate dean for graduate biomedical education. “At the school of medicine for the first year or two, students are typically funded by training grants. Later, student funding comes from their PI’s research grants. Students in XDBio will be funded for the full five years by the program. We expect that this will remove certain constraints and free the student to be more creative and independent.” The XDBio cohort and their advisers will conduct their research without concerns regarding student funding, as the program will fund their tuition and stipend for five years, leaving more time for research.

Changes to Curriculum: Less Coursework Is More

Classically, graduate education programs have a standard curriculum for all students that spans the programs’ field of interest. For example, all cellular and molecular medicine graduate students take nine required courses in their first year including molecular biology and genomics, genetics, pathways and regulation, cell structure and dynamics, regardless of their final choice of their thesis laboratory. This strategy allows graduate students to attain a broad and deep knowledge base prior to focusing within a specific field under the biomedical umbrella. In addition, the exposure to different topics gives each trainee time to decide which field they want to explore further within their own research or even narrow down their interests within the program. Graduate students then continue with a second year of specified coursework and take elective courses they choose, all the while doing laboratory rotations to identify their thesis laboratory.

The XDBio program better serves those students who have already defined their specific field of interest and need a platform to build their tailored first-year coursework. “XDBio students will have a clear notion of the area they want to be in and (will have already identified) their core area of interest,” says Brendan Cormack, professor and XDBio director. “Therefore, their community is oriented around the lab.” He explains: “Most learning in graduate school is experiential learning: working in the lab, running your own project, getting your own results and analyzing the results. That’s the core of graduate education.” Accordingly, XDBio students will not take a set of required courses spanning the entire field of biomedical sciences, but focus on content directly applicable to their research interests. Students will access classes already offered across the Johns Hopkins campuses, setting their own curriculum with the advice of a faculty mentor group. “If your interests are in human genetics and big data, there might be little reason to take a molecular mechanisms of enzymes course, but good reasons to take a computer science class,” Cormack says. “Thus, (the student’s) research drives the coursework.” Peter Espenshade emphasizes that this “individualized curriculum” approach is a response to the “explosion in the amount of facts and the unrealistic goal of gaining all of the knowledge in an entire field.” The goal is to move away “from a one-size-fits-all curriculum to an interdisciplinary, personalized curriculum.”2

In their second year, XDBio students will take their doctoral board oral examination to be evaluated on depth as well as breadth of knowledge in their field of study. The exam will focus on students’ ability to develop and understand hypothesis-driven experiments and formulate a coherent hypothesis from current scientific literature. Cormack explains, “The oral exam will be based on each student’s declared areas of interest. The aim is that XDBio students will gain the necessary tools and deep background in their chosen disciplines, to strengthen and complement their research — all without increasing time spent in the classroom.”

Nanocourses. Aside from general curriculum, XDBio will offer short, experiment-based nanocourses modeled after suggestions from Anna Bentley et al. to increase transferable skills in a shorter exposure time.2,3,4 In these courses, students will acquire technical skills across different disciplines to guide their examining particular scientific questions from a variety of experimental perspectives. This kind of pedagogy is envisioned to build students’ interdisciplinary skill sets and expose students to the wide variety of techniques within each discipline.2 Expert faculty members will lead graduate students through protocols for techniques specialized in their laboratories, and they will emphasize key steps. This will allow students to avoid troubleshooting through a given protocol on their own. “Experimental expertise is unevenly distributed across the campus and students struggle longer than necessary with protocols, and this is a way to take a few days to learn best practices for widely used techniques — for example, CRISPR genome modification, protein purification or cloning,” Cormack emphasizes. Ultimately, this new curriculum enables students to find the balance between lab productivity and an optimized student training environment to develop independent scientists. Nanocourses will be available to all graduate students, even outside the XDBio program, to make all techniques accessible to all laboratories.

How We’ll Measure Success

The benefits of the individualized curricula and the co-mentorship laboratory training will be monitored by the Office of Assessment and Evaluation. “The success of the program will be measured by how well our students do: how empowered they feel, how well they do in the program, and how well they do in the 10 years following the program,” Cormack says. He believes “graduate programs will change and develop ways to deal with the explosion of facts in the field. It’s a tsunami.” He hopes XDBio will develop some of those educational innovations to help guide the next generation of scientists to excel in their fields.


  1. R. Lorsch, D.G. Nichols, Organizing graduate life sciences education around nodes and connections. Cell 146, 506–509 (2011).
  2. L. Gutlerner, D.V. Vactor, Catalyzing curriculum evolution in graduate science education. Cell 153, 731–736 (2013).
  3. J. Daniels, A generation at risk: young investigators and the future of the biomedical workforce. PNAS 112, 313–318 (2015).
  4. M. Bentley, S. Artavanis-Tsakonas, J.S. Stanford, Nanocourses: a short course format as an educational tool in a biological sciences graduate curriculum. CBE Life Sci. Educ. 7, 175–183 (2008).

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