Molecular, Cellular, and Organismal Biology (MCOB), PhD

MCOB Faculty Research Interests | Degree Requirements

The PhD Program in Biology (Molecular Biology, Cellular Biology, and Organismal Biology Track)

The molecular, cellular, and organismal biology (MCOB) track of the Biology PhD Program is an interdisciplinary, integrative biology program that integrates basic research in cellular, molecular and organismal biology of bacteria, plants, invertebrates, and mammals. Students may choose to concentrate in one or more of these areas: bioremediation, molecular biology and cellular biology, defense mechanisms, developmental biology, genetics, molecular ecology, organismal physiology, molecular evolution, environmental monitoring, bioinformatics, and reproductive biology. You'll also study bacteriology, microbiology, proteomics, plant molecular biology, and systems biology. With the help of a faculty advisor, a cohesive course of study is designed from among a wide variety of research and study interests of MCOB faculty.

MCOB Faculty Research Interests

The MCOB track combines current strengths within the sciences to foster new interactions among and within departments. It provides UMass Boston with a center of expertise that can pursue new research and training fellowships, new opportunities for students, and serve as a creative resource for collaboration with scientists interested in applying molecular, cellular, and computational tools to their research. MCOB faculty research is supported by the NSF, NIH, USDA, NOAA, ONR, and National Sea Grant.

  • Steven Ackerman (Biology Department), PhD, University of Pennsylvania. Molecular biochemistry of transcription in wheat and human cells, crop improvement by genetic engineering.
  • Gregory Beck (Biology Department), PhD, State University of New York at Stony Brook. Comparative immunology, cytokines, molecular evolution of cell defense mechanisms.
  • Kenneth Campbell (Biology Department), PhD, University of Michigan. Mammalian and human reproductive endocrinology and cell physiology, ecological impacts on reproduction in humans, biomedical diagnostics, endocrine toxicology, protein and steroid hormone metabolism.
  • Robert Chen (School for the Environment), PhD, University of California San Diego. Environmental monitoring, fiber-optic chemical sensors, in situ instrumentation.
  • Adan Colón-Carmona (Biology Department), PhD, University of California, Irvine. Plant cell and molecular biology, control of the cell cycle in plants, regulation of plant growth by light, crop improvement by genetic engineering.
  • Ron Etter (Biology Department), PhD, Harvard University. Evolution and ecology of marine invertebrates.
  • Katherine Gibson (Biology Department) PhD, Princeton University, Plant-microbe interactions, cell signaling.
  • William Hagar (Biology Department), PhD, Temple University. Biochemistry of photosynthesis, effects of acid rain on diversity and population dynamics of plankton and sunfish in freshwater ponds, environmental monitoring by remote telesensing.
  • Linda Huang (Biology Department), PhD, California Institute of Technology. Cell biology, cell signaling, regulation of cell morphogenesis, developmental biology, fungal biology.
  • Richard Kesseli (Biology Department), PhD, University of California at Davis. Comparative genomics, molecular evolution.
  • Kenneth Kleene (Biology Department), PhD, University of Washington. Regulation of gene expression in spermatogenic cells, translational regulation, alternative transcription start-sites, creation of new genes by reverse transcription.
  • Jill Macoska (Biology Department), PhD, City University of New York. Molecular genetic alterations and dysfunctional inter- and intra-cellular signaling mechanisms that promote prostate pathobiology.
  • Alexia Pollack (Biology Department), PhD, University of Virginia. Neurobiology and neuropharmacology, animal models for Parkinson's disease.
  • William Robinson (School for the Environment), PhD, Northeastern University. Aquatic toxicology, metal uptake and internal transport in mollusks.
  • Michael Shiaris (Biology Department), PhD, University of Tennessee. Molecular ecology of bacteria, environmental monitoring, bioremediation of polyaromatic cyclic hydrocarbons, molecular phylogeny, development of molecular probes for pathogenic bacteria.
  • Kellee Siegfried-Harris (Biology Department), PhD, University of Wisconsin Madison. Developmental biology in zebrafish, germ cells, sex determination, genetics.
  • Rachel Skvirsky (Biology Department), PhD, Harvard University. Molecular biology, molecular genetics of bacteria, extracellular secretion, ecological role of bacterial toxins.
  • Robert Stevenson (Biology Department), PhD, University of Washington. Comparative animal physiology, muscle physiology, circadian rhythms, allometry, development of novel instrumentation, bioinformatics, conservation biology, environmental education.
  • Manickam Sugumaran (Biology Department), PhD, Indian Institute of Science. Insect biochemistry, specifically the melanogenic and sclerotinogenic enzymatic pathways, insect immunity, bioprospecting, design of insecticides based on unique biochemical pathways in insects.
  • Alexey Veraksa (Biology Department), PhD, University of California San Diego. Drosophila signal transduction, Notch signaling network, developmental biology, proteomic research.

Degree Requirements

Soon after entering the program, the student will be assigned an academic advisor, who must be a full-time member of the Biology Department faculty. Within six months, the student and academic advisor will choose an Academic Advisory Committee (AAC) and will submit this proposed committee for approval to the graduate program director (GPD) and the Biology Graduate Committee, which oversees all aspects of graduate study in environmental biology. The AAC will comprise the academic advisor and two additional members in the student’s area of interest. The student, in consultation with the AAC, will plan an appropriate course of study. During the first year of graduate study and until a dissertation committee has been established, the AAC will monitor the student’s progress. The academic advisor and the student will provide a yearly progress report to the GPD and the Graduate Committee. The student can change his or her academic advisor or rearrange his or her AAC with the approval of the GPD. Current course work requirements, as revised in fall 2007, are below.

For the PhD in biology/molecular, cellular, and organismal Biology, 60 (sixty) credits are required, distributed as follows:

  • Required (core) course (12 credits) and elective credits (12 credits);
  • Current literature courses (4 credits); and
  • Research credit (32 credits).

Required and elective courses: Students take three required courses (nine credits) and Scientific Communication (Biol 650; three credits) (total 12 credits). Each student takes at least 12 additional elective credits subject to the approval of the student's dissertation committee. Students must complete these courses for the core requirement:

  Biol 676 Advanced Molecular Biology
and Biol 612 Advanced Cell Biology
and either Biol 626 Molecular Genetics of Bacteria
or Biol 677 Advanced Eukaryotic Genetics
or Biol 625 Genomics and Biotechnology

Directed Readings (Biol 672) can constitute up to 3 credits of the electives.

Current literature courses: In addition to the 12 elective credits, students take a minimum of four credits of journal reading, in the form of current literature courses (Biol 653). These courses focus on subfields within biology. They are designed to help students stay abreast of recent developments through readings in the current literature, and to provide opportunities for public speaking.

Research: Students take a minimum of 32 dissertation credits (Biol 899).


To continue in the PhD program, the student must maintain a GPA of 3.0, and may not receive a grade of "C" in more than one course.

Written Comprehensive and Oral Qualifying Examinations

Students must pass two examinations before they undertake research at the doctoral level:

  1. a written comprehensive examination to test the student's command and knowledge of four specific areas of biology; and
  2. a subsequent oral qualifying examination based on

a.) the oral description and defense of the student's dissertation proposal
b.) comprehensive questioning focused on the four areas covered in the written exam.

The written comprehensive examination may be taken at the end of the student's first year, or after the completion of at least 18 credits of course work; and it should generally be taken by the end of four semesters or 36 credits of course work. The student will defend four areas, drawn from the array of graduate courses offered in the department or from other areas acceptable to the AAC and approved by the Graduate Committee. The exam will be conducted by the three members of the AAC and one additional faculty member acceptable to the AAC. The format of the exam is flexible, but will generally be a two day event in which the student will answer the questions written by two of the four faculty members of the examination committee on each day. In order to advance to the oral qualifying examination, the student must perform satisfactorily on the written portion.

A student who fails the written examination may, at the discretion of the academic advisory committee, be permitted a second and final written examination after six months. A student failing the examination a second time may either

  1. withdraw from the program or
  2. formally petition the AAC to continue towards a master's degree in one of the Biology MS programs or the Environmental Science MS program.

All the requirements of the MS program must be fulfilled to receive an MS degree. A student cannot continue in the PhD program after a second failure of the comprehensive examination.

Generally, within one month following the written exam, the student should submit a brief description of his or her dissertation proposal to the AAC and the GPD. The proposal should be no more than 10 pages and should include a brief background description, hypotheses to be tested, appropriate methodology, anticipated results, potential pitfalls and literature citation. Note, this is not a thesis defense. The purpose of the proposal is to allow the committee to view the depths of a student's thoughts in the area of his/her specialization. (This thesis proposal could be the basis for obtaining extramural funding and the student and advisor are strongly encouraged to pursue this possibility after if not before the examinations). Before the examination, the student should confer with members of the AAC regarding the soundness of the proposal. In addition the student should discuss the possible deficiencies in the written exam with the individual members of the AAC. The oral qualifying exam should be scheduled, generally within one month, following the submission of the thesis proposal.

The oral qualifying exam will be announced to the biology faculty two weeks in advance of the date. The defense is open to the entire faculty, but only the AAC can vote on whether the students passes or fails the defense. Though flexible, a typical defense may begin with a brief (30 min) description of the thesis proposal, followed by questioning of the proposal and the four areas defended in the written exam. The format will allow interested faculty, not on the examination committee, to attend the proposal description without committing to the full defense. As with the written portion, the student who fails the oral defense examination may be permitted, at the committee's discretion, to retake the qualifying examination.

On successfully completing the qualifying examination, the student becomes a candidate for the PhD degree in MCOB. The student is allowed up to five more years to complete and successfully defend a scholarly dissertation.

Oral Presentation to the Biology Department

Approximately nine to twelve months after the student's advance to candidacy, the student will present a seminar, based on his or her work in progress, to the Biology Department.

Dissertation Committee

After becoming a candidate for the PhD, the student must choose a dissertation advisor and committee. The dissertation committee will generally, but not necessarily, comprise the three members of the AAC and one member from outside the program. With the approval of the GPD and the Graduate Committee, faculty from outside the MCOB track or non-UMass Boston faculty will be permitted to co-sponsor a student's dissertation work.

Dissertations: Before the expected completion of the dissertation, the student will periodically (at least annually) present his/her work to the Dissertation Committee. The committee will discuss the work with the student, possibly to make suggestions about the direction of the work, and to assure that the student is focused toward a satisfactory conclusion of the research project. The student will be expected to defend a scholarly dissertation based on original research.

Dissertation Defense

A final public dissertation defense will be administered by a dissertation panel comprising at least five members including:

  • the Dissertation Committee;
  • the Biology GPD or (if the GPD is already on the dissertation committee) a member of the Graduate Committee; and
  • a member designated by the dean of graduate studies as the dean's representative. The defense will be chaired by the student's dissertation advisor, and will be scheduled after the student has submitted an advanced draft of the manuscript to the dissertation panel and after the panel has agreed that the student is ready to defend it.

Job Opportunities for MCOB Track Graduates

The MCOB track is designed to train highly skilled employees for careers in the metropolitan Boston area. Boston is a national center of environmental consulting, medical research, and biotechnology. The growth of these industries is dependent on a supply of highly skilled employees, and UMass Boston is the only public university in the metropolitan Boston area that provides doctoral training to students. Graduates of the MCOB track will have the broad knowledge and expertise in molecular, cellular, computational and environmental biology to compete successfully for jobs in the academic and private sectors.

The last decade has witnessed the transformation of the Massachusetts economy from one dominated by a few large defense and electronics industries to a more diverse "New" Economy consisting of many smaller, skills-intensive industries such as software, telecommunications, financial services, consulting, biotechnology, and health sciences. The local diversification parallels a national trend toward an increasingly skilled workforce and substantial investment of government and venture capital into research and development. The New Economy has increased the number of high-paying, technology-based jobs, and has buffered the Massachusetts economy from cyclic variations in the national and world economies. The MCOB track aims to train scientists to use multidisciplinary approaches essential for a successful research career.

Further Information

Please consult the frequently asked questions (FAQs) at the bottom of the preceding Graduate Programs home page.

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