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Rice to offer Ph.D. in systems, synthetic, and physical biology

Rice approves new Ph.D. at the cutting-edge of biological research

By Jade Boyd
Rice News Staff

SSBPRice University has established a new doctoral program that encompasses several of the 21st century’s hottest research fields in life sciences. The new interdisciplinary degree program in systems, synthetic, and physical biology (SSPB) was approved this week by Rice’s Faculty Senate and is set to enroll its first students in fall 2013.

The SSPB program is a joint venture between the George R. Brown School of Engineering and the Wiess School of Natural Sciences.

“Systems, synthetic, and physical biology is a new field that combines experimental and theoretical approaches to solve both fundamental and applied problems in the biosciences, biotechnology and medicine,” said SSPB Program Director Michael Deem, Rice’s John W. Cox Professor in Bioengineering and professor of physics and astronomy.

Deem said SSPB is a rapidly emerging field in life sciences, and doctoral students are particularly interested in studying SSPB because of projected job growth in the field in coming years.

“SSPB is at the heart of reading, understanding and using the molecular language of life to both construct and deconstruct the genetic circuits that determine how cells operate, interact with one other and adapt to their environments,” Deem said. “We need to decode and truly understand this language to use it to reprogram cells and create new organisms that produce tissues, biofuels, materials, medicines and other useful products.”
Rice’s SSPB degree candidates will complete a required curriculum that includes courses from both the schools of Engineering and Natural Sciences. The program will also foster new collaborative research partnerships within the Texas Medical Center.

“Systems biology is transformational in our understanding of biology, just as synthetic biology empowers the design of new biological constructs,” said Dan Carson, dean and the Schlumberger Chair of Advanced Studies and Research at Rice’s Wiess School of Natural Sciences. “The combination of these two fields with the quantitative approach of physical biology has led to a truly wonderful intellectual environment for graduate students.”

More than 30 faculty from eight academic departments are participating in SSPB, including program founders Yousif Shamoo, professor of biochemistry and cell biology; Marek Kimmel, professor of statistics and of bioengineering; and Oleg Igoshin, assistant professor of bioengineering.

“The timing is right for this program,” said Edwin L. “Ned” Thomas, the William and Stephanie Sick Dean of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering. “This is a true partnership between the schools of Natural Science and Engineering, and it has the potential to put Rice at the front of this emerging field.”