Meet Sanford-Burnham’s graduate students

By Faculty Contributor
November 16, 2011

Even though a large portion of the research work at Sanford-Burnham historically has been carried out by postdoctoral trainees, graduate students have always had a presence at the Institute. In the past, these individuals were officially enrolled at UC San Diego or other universities and carried out their research in a lab at Sanford-Burnham because of its particular expertise. Although this type of arrangement still continues, the situation changed in 2006 when the Institute founded its own graduate training program designed to confer Ph.D. degrees. The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Sanford-Burnham was recently recognized by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) as a Candidate for Accreditation.*

According to the Dean of the program, Dr. Guy Salvesen, “Our eventual goal of full accreditation will serve as proof of what we already know; namely, that a Ph.D. degree from the Institute is a rigorous one of high quality that stacks up well against a degree from any of the other outstanding institutions that students might choose.”

Our program is somewhat unique in that it strives to attract students who already have some level of laboratory training, already have a good idea about what type of research they want to do, and may have already identified a specific laboratory for their training. This allows students to dispense with the traditional first-year routine of rotating through several labs to see what subjects may interest them.

Originally from Chongqing, China, Yi Ding heard about Sanford-Burnham’s graduate program from professors in China. Yi was excited to learn about Dr. Francesca Marassi’s use of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to study the structure and biology of membrane proteins. Yi entered the Institute’s graduate program in January of 2011 and has been very pleased with the combination of lab work and course work offered here.

“This has been a good choice for me because the program allows me to take courses and tutorials on subjects that are directly related to my research,” says Yi. “My studies on a key membrane protein of the pathogen Yersenia pestis have been enhanced by my courses on cell biology and protein structure.”

For Judith Scheliga, the choice of a mentor was a key factor in applying to graduate school. Judith was doing undergraduate work at the University of Regensburg when she had the chance to work with Dr. Dieter Wolf for six months at Harvard. While pursuing her Master’s degree at Regensburg, she again visited the Wolf lab, which had by that time moved to Sanford-Burnham. This visit solidified Judith’s desire to continue her association with Dr. Wolf as a Ph.D. student.

“For me, the big advantage of the program has been the way in which the focus of the required classes and the specialized tutorials have contributed to my success in the lab,” says Judith. “In particular, the one-on-one nature of the tutorials with Institute professors has provided very practical guidance of my thesis work, and has also opened the door to some productive collaborations with other labs.”

From Fontana, California, Steve Soonthornvacharin earned a B.S. in biochemistry/cell biology at UC San Diego, then took a full-time position at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF), working on a combination of immunology and genetics. When he decided to apply to a Ph.D. program, Steve immediately thought of Sanford-Burnham’s Dr. Sumit Chanda, with whom he had collaborated while both were at GNF.

Steve readily admits that it was a combination of both Dr. Chanda and the people in his lab that initially lured him to the Institute. But starting his third year in the program, he now says, “In addition to the Chanda lab, I’ve come to realize that there are a tremendous number of resources I can draw on at the Institute. This includes not only the facilities, but also the faculty members who lead personalized graduate tutorials designed to focus on the priorities of each student’s project.”

Program Coordinator Stacy Devlin proudly reports that the Institute’s graduate program conferred three more Ph.D. degrees at the end of this past summer, for a total of five graduates. With expanding enrollment, increased faculty participation, and accreditation on the horizon, Sanford-Burnham’s graduate program promises to be an increasingly important player in the Institute’s impact on education, science, and health.

Interested in applying to Sanford-Burnham’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences? Click here

*Required statement: “The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute has been recognized as a Candidate for Accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), 985 Atlantic Avenue, #100, Alameda, CA 94501, 510-748-9001. This status is an affiliation with the Commission awarded for a maximum period of four years. Candidacy is an indication that the institution is progressing towards Accreditation. Candidacy is not Accreditation and does not ensure eventual Accreditation.”

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