University of Southern California

Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Biological Sciences

Graduate Degrees

Degree Programs in Biological Sciences

The graduate programs in biology provide education and training of biologists interested in living systems ranging from cellular to ecosystem levels of organization, investigated by laboratory or fieldwork. Courses and faculty research interests allow a multidisciplinary approach. A number of additional research areas are provided by adjunct faculty from other institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Students develop the ability to formulate and test hypotheses, integrating information and concepts in the completion of a dissertation (Ph.D.). A qualifying exam committee is formed for each student during the first year to develop a particular program of course work and research, and to evaluate the student’s progress. Specific information about the options in biological sciences can be obtained by requesting information brochures or online at dornsife.usc.edu/bisc.

Admission Requirements

Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree in a natural science (preferably biology) from an accredited four year college or university, or in mathematics or engineering; required background courses include organic chemistry, general physics and mathematics through integral calculus. Applicants are evaluated by their transcripts and GPA; scores on the GRE General Test; three letters of recommendation; and a statement of interest. A faculty member must serve as initial sponsor and adviser for admission to marine biology and biological oceanography (MBBO) and integrative and evolutionary biology (IEB); neurobiology (BNRO), and molecular and computational biology (MCB) students are required to complete at least two laboratory rotations in their first year. Applicants who are accepted but judged to have minor deficiencies are expected to correct them within the first year.

Degree Requirements

These degrees are awarded under the jurisdiction of the Graduate School. Refer to the Requirements for Graduation section and the Graduate School section of the catalogue for general regulations. All courses applied toward the degrees must be courses accepted by the Graduate School.

Master of Science in Biology

The M.S. degree program in biology is a terminal degree for students admitted into the marine biology and biological oceanography (MBBO), neurobiology (BNRO), or integrative and evolutionary biology (IEB) Ph.D. programs who cannot complete the Ph.D. degree program for personal or medical reasons.

The M.S. degree program is a non-thesis program but a paper, based on the student’s original research investigation of a selected program in biology, constitutes one of the requirements. Each student must take 7–8 units of biology graduate core courses (BISC 582, BISC 584 and BISC 585) or neurobiology courses (NSCI 524 and either NSCI 531 or NSCI 532), two seminars and additional graduate courses or research units for a minimum of 24 units. Students also must satisfy the residency and other requirements of the Graduate School. Further details of these requirements are contained within each graduate program’s particular requirements and policies.

Master of Science in Marine and Environmental Biology

The Master of Science degree in Marine and Environmental Biology (MEB) is designed to provide admitted students with a rigorous, quantitative and focused introduction to the burgeoning fields and breadth of topics in marine environmental biology/chemistry, geobiology, oceanography, conservation biology and population dynamics (depending upon the concentration selected). MEB provides students with independent research experiences that satisfy their own specific interests. The program is intended to position and stimulate students for possible advanced study leading to a Ph.D. in one of the areas stated above, and/or provide a unique facet to the background of a prospective medical student. The program will also provide fundamental tools and expertise for entry into a master’s level position in academic, government or private sector research laboratories. It will prepare students interested in governmental and non-government (NGO) environmental regulatory science and forge career pathways into private sector ­positions in environmental consulting and business.

Applicants must possess a cumulative and science GPA of 3.0 or higher and have the following courses completed prior to admission: one year of introductory biology, one semester of molecular biology, one semester of biochemistry, one year of general chemistry, and one year of organic chemistry. All of the above must carry labs and be available for major credit in the natural sciences at a four-year college or university.

Applicants interested in using course work completed while an undergraduate may apply for the progressive master’s degree as early as their junior year.

Core Courses Units
BISC 582 Advanced Biological Oceanography 4
BISC 585 Scientific Writing and Reviewing 2
BISC 590 Directed Research 4
Completion of two semesters of:
BISC 529 Seminar in Marine Biology 1-1
Core Seminar Elective Units
Completion of one advanced seminar from among BISC 530, BISC 531, BISC 532, BISC 533, BISC 534, BISC 535, BISC 536 2
Graduate Elective Requirement units
Eighteen units chosen from the following list, of which 8 units must be within the Department of Biological Sciences (BISC), and no more than 8 units can be at the 400-level.
BISC 403 Advanced Molecular Biology 4
BISC 419 Environmental Microbiology 4
BISC 431L Aquatic Microbiology — Catalina Semester 4
BISC 435 Advanced Biochemistry 4
BISC 437L Comparative Physiology of Animals 4
BISC 445L Fundamentals of Vertebrate Biology 4
BISC 447L Island Biogeography and Field Ecology 4
BISC 450L Principles of Immunology 4
BISC 455L Molecular Approaches to Microbial Diversity — Catalina Semester 4
BISC 457L Methods in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography — Catalina Semester 4
BISC 460 Seminar in Marine and Environmental Biology 2, max 4
BISC 469L Marine Biology 4
BISC 473L Biological Oceanography 4
BISC 474L Ecosystem Function and Earth Systems 4
BISC 483 Geobiology and Astrobiology 4
BISC 502ab Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry 4-4
BISC 511 Integrative Biology 4
BISC 512 Evolutionary Biology 4
BISC 530 Advanced Seminar in Plankton Biology 2
BISC 531 Advanced Seminar on the Physiology of Marine Organisms 2
BISC 532 Advanced Seminar in Molecular and Microbial Ecology 2
BISC 533 Advanced Seminar in Remote Sensing and Modeling 2
BISC 534 Advanced Seminar in Population Genetics of Marine Organisms 2
BISC 536 Advanced Seminar in Marine Biogeochemistry 2
BISC 584 Faculty Lecture Series 2
BISC 588L Quantitative Analysis for Biological and Earth Sciences 4
CE 443 Environmental Chemistry 3
CE 463L Water Chemistry and Analysis 3
CE 503 Microbiology for Environmental Engineers 3
GEOG 587 GPS/GIS Field Techniques 4
GEOL 412 Oceans, Climate, and the Environment 3
GEOL 460L Geochemistry and Hydrogeology 3
GEOL 500 Marine Paleoecology 3
GEOL 501 Paleobiology 3
GEOL 514 Marine Geology 3
GEOL 555 Paleoceanography 3
GEOL 560 Marine Geochemistry 3
GEOL 564 Isotope Geochemistry 3
GEOL 567 Stable Isotope Geochemistry 3
GEOL 577 Micropaleontology 3
OS 512 Introduction to Chemical and Physical Oceanography 3
PPD 694 Coastal Policy and Planning 4
Total required units: 32

Doctor of Philosophy in Biology (Neurobiology)

Application deadline: December 15

Course Requirements

The neurobiology option provides each student with a broad, fundamental background in neurobiology and with detailed knowledge and expertise in the chosen area of concentration. The Ph.D. neurobiology concentration requires the following courses: two of three (NSCI 531, NSCI 532 or BISC 426) and NSCI 538 plus NSCI 539 (1 unit per semester for four semesters). A minimum total of 60 units is required, consisting of formal courses, seminars and research credit. At least 24 of the minimum 60 total units required are to be formal graduate course work (lecture or seminar courses). Courses in related disciplines of neuroscience, such as computational or cognitive neuroscience, are not required, but may be taken as electives. Courses in genomics, molecular biology, integrative and evolutionary biology and biomedical engineering are also available as electives for students interested in bridging the interface between neurobiology and these disciplines. Students also must satisfy the residency and other requirements of the Graduate School.

Student Teaching

Since most graduates in biological sciences will spend some part of their careers in academic work, teaching experience is considered an important part of graduate training. Each graduate student in the program is therefore required to serve at least one semester as a teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Qualifying Examination

The examinations qualifying the student for candidacy for the Ph.D. in biology (neuro­biology) must be initiated before the end of the fourth semester. The first part is written and consists of comprehensive questions from the qualifying exam committee covering the student’s knowledge of topics within their proposed area of research. The second part is an oral examination, which consists of the presentation and defense of a research proposal.

Doctoral Dissertation

The dissertation is based on original, publishable and significant research conducted independently by the student under the guidance of the dissertation committee.

Defense of the Dissertation

The defense of the dissertation is either a defense oral or a final oral. In most cases, a defense oral will suffice if approved by the dissertation committee.

Doctor of Philosophy in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography

Application deadline: January 15

Course Requirements

In marine biology and biological oceanography, each student receives a general background in marine sciences and obtains in-depth specialization in a research area of his or her choosing. Each student’s curriculum is fitted to the particular needs and demands of the chosen research field. The 26 units of formal course work must include the following: BISC 529 (4), BISC 582 (4), BISC 583 (4), BISC 584 (2), BISC 585 (2), BISC 586 (2); four advanced graduate seminars (8); and a statistics course approved by the student’s adviser.

Core Courses Units
BISC 582 Advanced Biological Oceanography 4
BISC 583 Evolution and Adaptation of Marine Organisms 4
BISC 584 Faculty Lecture Series 2
BISC 585 Scientific Writing and Reviewing 2
BISC 586 Biological Oceanographic Instrumentation 2
Completion of two semesters of:
BISC 529 Seminar in Marine Biology 4
Core Seminar Elective 1, max 4 Units
Completion of one advanced seminar from among BISC 530, BISC 531, BISC 532, BISC 533, BISC 534, BISC 535, BISC 536 and BISC 538

A minimum total of 60 units is required, consisting of formal courses, seminars and research credit. At least 24 of the minimum 60 total units required are to be formal graduate course work (lecture and seminar courses).

Screening Examination

Candidates must also pass a screening examination to determine competence and point out deficiencies, fulfill a research tool requirement (computer skills, biostatistics, quantitative chemistry), and meet the residency and other requirements of the Graduate School. This exam is completed before completion of 24 units in the program.

Student Teaching

Since most graduates in biological sciences will spend some part of their careers in academic work, teaching experience is considered an important part of graduate training. Each graduate student in the program is therefore required to serve at least two semesters as a teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Qualifying Examination

Before the end of the fifth semester, each student must pass a written and oral qualifying examination given by the student’s qualifying exam committee. The written part involves answering a number of questions at length. The oral part is in the area of the student’s intended ­research, based on a project selected and developed by the student into a written proposition. After passing the qualifying examination, the student completes the research investigation and any other requirements under the guidance of the research adviser who also chairs the dissertation committee.

Doctoral Dissertation

The dissertation is based on original, publishable and significant research conducted independently by the student under the guidance of the dissertation committee.

Defense of the Dissertation

The defense of the dissertation is either a defense oral or a final oral. In most cases, a defense oral will suffice if approved by the dissertation committee.

Master of Science in Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry

The Master of Science in Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry is designed to provide outstanding students in life science majors with a rigorous, quantitative experimental experience in molecular genetics, genomics, evolutionary biology, cell and molecular biology, biochemistry (depending upon the research area selected). The program is intended to position and stimulate students for possible advanced study leading to a Ph.D. in one of the areas stated above, and/or provide an important research experience to the background of a prospective medical student. The program will also provide fundamental tools and expertise for entry into master’s level positions in academic, government or private sector research laboratories, including biotech, pharmaceuticals or diagnostics. This is a terminal degree. Students who wish to pursue their doctorate at USC should apply directly to the Ph.D. program.

Applicants must be undergraduate majors in the life sciences, who possess a cumulative and science GPA of 3.0 or higher and have the following courses completed or in progress at the time of admission: one year of introductory biology (BISC 120L/BISC 220L or BISC 121L/BISC 221L, or equivalent), one semester of molecular biology (BISC 320L or equivalent), one year of general chemistry (CHEM 105abL or CHEM 115abL, or equivalent), and one year of organic chemistry (CHEM 322abL or CHEM 325abL or equivalent). All of the above must carry labs and be available for major credit in the natural sciences at a four-year college or university.

Because this degree is based on research, students must identify a faculty adviser prior to enrollment and submit a research proposal approved by that adviser to the master’s degree committee. It is recommended that students have performed the equivalent of independent study or a research internship (equivalent to BISC 490x) in their laboratory of choice prior to admission. Students are expected to perform 6 units of research in both fall and spring semesters; alternatively, with the adviser’s approval upon enrollment, they may choose to perform the research component in variable increments in summer, fall and spring semesters to equal 12 units. This may be the preferred schedule if students wish to take additional electives during the academic year.

This program requires 32 units, of which 24 must be at the graduate level.

Core courses Units
BISC 502a Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry 4
BISC 544 Advanced Reading in Molecular Biology (two semesters) 4
BISC 590 Directed Research (2–3 semesters) 12
One from the following:
BISC 502b Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry 4
BISC 505 Genomics and Molecular Genetics 4
Elective Requirements Units
Eight units from the following list:
BISC 403 Advanced Molecular Biology 4
BISC 406L Biotechnology 4
BISC 411 Advanced Cell Biology 4
BISC 414 Biology of Cancer 4
BISC 419 Environmental Microbiology 4
BISC 425 Advanced Genetics Through the Primary Scientific Literature 4
BISC 426 Principles of Neural Development 4
BISC 435 Advanced Biochemistry 4
BISC 478 Computational Genome Analysis 4
BISC 480 Developmental Biology 4
BISC 481 Structural Bioinformatics: From Atoms to Cells 4
BISC 485 Advanced Seminar in Bacterial Survival and Evolution 4
BISC 502b Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry (if core requirement fulfilled with BISC 505) 4
BISC 505 Genomics and Molecular Genetics (if core requirement fulfilled with BISC 502b) 4
BISC 515 Evolutionary and Human Biology 4

Students will complete a summative research paper that is written in publication format. The student will submit a proposed outline to the faculty mentor and one other molecular biology faculty member by January 15 for initial approval. The final paper is due on April 15. In the rare event that the final paper is not acceptable to the faculty, students may enroll for one more summer semester to perform revisions. If the paper is still not acceptable, the M.S. component of the degree will not be granted.

Molecular and Computational Biology

This program is designed to train the participants intensively in the concepts and experimental methodologies of molecular biology and biochemistry. The subject matter is organized in an integrated fashion (lectures, seminars and laboratory) to present fundamental information on the biochemistry, biophysics, genetics and development of cells from a variety of different organisms. Primary emphasis is on the relationship between structure and function at different integrative and functional levels. The program offers a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and a Ph.D. in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics. Applications may be accessed online at http://dornsife.usc.edu/bisc/mcb/.

Admission Requirements

Applicants are expected to have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in a cognate area such as biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, bacteriology, computer science, or bioinformatics. Undergraduate work should include a basic course in biology, basic physics, physical chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry and calculus. Students who are deficient in any of these may be required to correct the deficiency during the first two years of graduate study. Courses taken to correct these deficiencies are usually not credited toward the degree. The student must submit letters of recommendation from at least three faculty members who can evaluate the promise of the student for graduate work and independent research. The applicant must take the GRE General Test prior to acceptance.

Degree Requirements

These degrees are awarded under the jurisdiction of the Graduate School. Refer to the Requirements for Graduation section and the Graduate School section of this catalogue for general regulations. All courses applied toward the degrees must be courses accepted by the Graduate School.

Master of Science in Molecular and Computational Biology

The M.S. degree program in molecular and computational biology (MCB) is a terminal degree for students admitted into the MCB Ph.D. program who cannot complete the Ph.D. degree program for personal or medical reasons. The study of molecular biology places so many demands upon the student that it is difficult to attain any satisfactory level of competence in the time generally taken for a master’s degree. Therefore, enrollment of graduate students as master’s degree applicants is not encouraged and is reserved for special circumstances. The curriculum of the master’s student is patterned after that of the doctorate up to and including the qualifying examination, but not including thesis research. The qualifying examination will serve as the comprehensive master’s examination.

Doctor of Philosophy in Molecular Biology

Application deadline: January 1

During the first year, the student’s program is under the direction of an initial qualifying exam committee composed of members of the committee on admissions to the program. Before the end of the second semester, a permanent qualifying exam committee, chaired by the student’s research director, is established. Thereafter, the student’s program of studies and dissertation is under the direction of the permanent qualifying exam committee and the dissertation committee.

Screening Procedure

In the third semester, the student’s progress is discussed and evaluated by the qualifying exam committee. The purpose of this evaluation is to determine competence to continue graduate study, and to point out deficiencies to be remedied prior to the qualifying examination.

Course Requirements

A minimum of 24 of the 60 units required for the Ph.D. degree must be in formal course work, exclusive of research. These must include the core courses, BISC 502a and BISC 502b, to be completed in the first year with a grade no less than B in both classes. Additionally, students will register for BISC 576 in the fall semester and BISC 504L (3-3) in both semesters. In the fall semester of the second year, students will choose an additional 4-unit, 400- or 500-level course in consultation with their adviser. Students must participate in molecular biology seminars. Other courses may be chosen, in consultation with the pro­gram chair, from graduate ­offerings of this and other departments.

Language Requirement

Students in the graduate program in molecular biology are not required to pass a foreign language examination.

Student Teaching

Since most graduates in biological sciences will spend some part of their careers in academic work, teaching experience is considered an important part of graduate training. Each graduate student in the program is therefore required to serve at least two semesters as a teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Qualifying Examination

The examinations qualifying the student for candidacy for the Ph.D. in molecular biology must be initiated in the second semester of the second year. The first part is written and consists of comprehensive questions covering the student’s knowledge of prokaryotic and eukaryotic molecular biology and developmental biology or genomics. The second part is an oral examination. It consists of general questions and the presentation and defense of a proposition outlining a research program. The student can select a topic completely outside of their thesis topic. Alternatively, the student can select a topic using the same model system as their dissertation work, but a different research question, or a topic on the same research question, but using a different model system. While going outside their field is encouraged, students should not stray too far away from genetics, molecular and cell biology or biochemistry approaches. This ­examination sequence must be completed by the end of the fifth semester of the program.

Doctoral Dissertation

The dissertation is based on original, publishable, and significant research conducted independently by the student under the guidance of the dissertation committee.

Defense of the Dissertation

The defense of the dissertation is either a defense oral or a final oral. In most cases a defense oral will suffice if approved by the dissertation committee.

Doctor of Philosophy in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics

Application deadline: December 15

During the first year, the student’s program is under the direction of an initial qualifying exam committee composed of members of the admissions committee. After passing the screening procedure before the end of the first semester, the student must form a qualifying exam committee consisting of an adviser and four other faculty members, including at least one from another department. Thereafter, the student’s program of studies and dissertation are under the direction of the permanent qualifying exam committee and the dissertation committee.

Screening Procedure

The screening examination should be taken by the end of the second semester in the program. If the student fails the examination, the department, at its discretion, may permit the student to repeat the examination during the next semester. The screening examination consists of written examinations on topics including molecular biology, mathematical probability and statistics, and algorithms.

Course Requirements

The students must complete, with no grade lower than a B, a minimum of 60 units of courses carrying graduate credit and approved by the qualifying exam committee. The required courses include: BISC 542, CSCI 570, MATH 505a, MATH 541a, and MATH 578ab. Students must take at least one biology course in the area of molecular biology, genetics or biochemistry. An additional 6 units of elective courses will be taken in consultation with the student’s adviser. Students must register for a minimum of 4 units of dissertation research (BISC 794ab). Students must be registered in BISC 542 (computational section) their first three years in the program (6 semesters).

Transfer of Credit

No transfer of credit will be considered until the screening examination is passed. A maximum of 30 units of graduate work at another institution may be applied toward the course requirements for the Ph.D. A grade of B- (A = 4.0) or lower will not be accepted and, at most, two grades of B will be accepted. A Ph.D. candidate may petition the department for transfer of additional credit, after he or she passes the qualifying examination.

Qualifying Examination

The qualifying examination should be taken within two semesters following successful completion of the screening examination.

The written portion of the qualifying examination consists of a dissertation proposal. This document should include: introduction, statement of the problem, literature survey, methodology, summary of preliminary results, proposed research, references, appendix (including one or two fundamental references).

The oral portion of the qualifying examination consists of presentation of the Ph.D. dissertation proposal. The student must demonstrate research potential.

Dissertation

Following passage of the screening examination and approval of a dissertation topic by the qualifying exam committee, the student begins research toward the dissertation under the supervision of the dissertation committee. The primary requirement of the Ph.D. is an acceptable dissertation based on a substantial amount of original research conducted by the student.

Defense of the Dissertation

The defense of the dissertation is either a defense oral or a final oral. In most cases a defense oral will suffice if approved by the dissertation committee.

Doctor of Philosophy in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology

Application deadline: December 15

This program of study is designed to provide each student with a broad, fundamental background in integrative and evolutionary biology (IEB) coupled with detailed knowledge and expertise in the chosen area of concentration. The core of the course work in integrative and evolutionary biology consists of four courses — BISC 515 (4), seminar BISC 549 (2-2) and a 4-unit course to be decided upon by the student’s adviser — that are taken by all first-year graduate students. Various faculty members also teach a variety of advanced courses and seminars on specialized research topics each semester. In addition, a range of courses in areas relating to IEB are available in various departments on the University Park and Health Sciences Campuses.

Course Requirements

Each student’s curriculum is tailored to the particular interests of the individual and the needs and demands of the chosen research field. A minimum total of 60 units is required, consisting of formal courses, seminars and research credit. The 24 units of formal course work must include 12 units of specified course work in integrative and evolutionary biology, BISC 515, adviser-specified course, seminar BISC 549 (minimum 4 units), and 12 units of advanced electives chosen in consultation with the student’s adviser.

Screening Examination

After completion of the core integrative biology and evolutionary biology course work (BISC 515, adviser-specified, BISC 549) during the first year, the student’s degree progress is discussed and evaluated by a screening committee composed of members of the IEB faculty as well as the student’s principal adviser. The purpose of this written and oral evaluation is to determine competence to continue graduate study and identify areas to be strengthened prior to the qualifying examination.

Student Teaching

Since most graduates in biological sciences will spend some part of their careers in academic work, teaching experience is considered an important part of graduate training. Each graduate student in the program is therefore required to assist in the teaching program for two semesters as a teaching assistant.

Qualifying Examination

By the end of the third semester, students should choose a qualifying exam committee consistent with the requirements of the graduate school composed of IEB faculty and one outside member. This committee will conduct the qualifying exam and provide guidance during dissertation research. The chair of the committee will serve as the principal adviser. Students should consult extensively with each committee member regarding subjects to be covered in the exam.

The qualifying exam consists of written and oral parts. Both parts must be finished before the end of the fifth semester. For the written exam, the adviser will consult with each of the members of the qualifying exam committee. The written part will incorporate evaluation and synthesis of existing knowledge related to topic areas, design of experiment to test a relevant hypothesis, and interpretation of anticipated results. The oral exam consists of an oral defense of the written part and will be conducted within a month of the written part of the qualifying exam.

Doctoral Dissertation

The dissertation is based on original, publishable and significant research conducted independently by the student under the guidance of the dissertation committee.

Defense of the Dissertation

The defense of the dissertation is either a defense oral or a final oral. In most cases a defense oral will suffice if approved by the dissertation committee.