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For graduate students, PIBBS program underscores value of collaborative science

As it enters its 10th year, the Program in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (PIBBS) has launched an enhanced recruitment effort aimed at graduating science undergraduates nationwide.

The PIBBS program, which is different from most standard Ph.D. recruitment programs that are school or department-based, gives every participant a sponsored year to sample a number of different research areas. PIBBS students choose their laboratory rotations from more than 200 USC laboratories and discuss biomedical and biological research opportunities with different faculty members. The PIBBS administrative staff and faculty guide students through their first year, helping them choose a mentor and a field of research for their Ph.D. studies.

PIBBS students can obtain degrees from one of 14 different Ph.D. programs, including systems biology and disease, genetics, molecular and cellular biology, neuroscience, craniofacial biology, health behavior research, molecular pharmacology and toxicology, biomedical engineering, marine and environmental biology, integrative and evolutionary biology, biostatistics, molecular and computational biology and pharmaceutical sciences.

The PIBBS program “reflects USC’s commitment to attract exceptional graduate students and provide each student with a rigorous and customized educational experience,” noted Debbie Johnson, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and PIBBS director. “Some graduating undergraduates know exactly what science they want to pursue. Many don’t. The PIBBS advantage lies in each student’s ability to explore the many exciting research opportunities in biomedical and biological science at USC before committing to a particular Ph.D. program, laboratory or researcher.”

Graduate students enroll in programs on the Health Sciences Campus, the University Park Campus or Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. “We even had one student that went to the House Ear Institute,” she said.

The program has been very successful; last year there were 535 applicants for the 40 annual PIBBS spaces. “Every year we’ve increased exponentially, not only in quantity, but also in quality of the applicants,” she said.

Still, Johnson and other PIBBS faculty have traveled this year to Washington, Michigan, New York, Florida and other states in an effort to broaden the national pool of applicants. They are armed with new recruitment materials developed in partnership with the Health Sciences Campus Public Relations and Marketing office. Recognizing that many of the other programs represented at national graduate fairs bring professional-quality brochures and materials, PIBBS leadership decided to invest in colorful new brochures and matching tablecloths and banner stands. Together, PIBBS and HSC Public Relations and Marketing created new materials that emphasize the important PIBBS student-faculty interaction, making a compelling case for the uniqueness of the PIBBS program.

Some of the other universities that offer this kind of collaborative, guided Ph.D. program are in public universities and “can only accept U.S. students,” Johnson said. “As a private institution, we can accept international students – and we’re very popular overseas. But we want to increase our U.S. visibility as well,” she said.

Johnson said the program has met with much enthusiasm at the universities she visited. “In this day of collaborative science, we’re training our students to become multidisciplinary scientists and sample different specialties,” she said. Another appealing point is that PIBBS graduates have gone on to some of the best science jobs in academia, private industry and government.

Even after a PIBBS graduate student has gone on to work in a specific lab or with a specific researcher, the program continues to provide guidance and guarantee support. “They know they can come back and ask my advice,” said Johnson. “Or, if something happens, or a program they are in loses funding, we pick up support for them and they get a fresh start. It’s a guarantee that we will be there for them and support them throughout their Ph.D. studies.”

Johnson, who gives PIBBS students her home and cell numbers, has even helped some find apartments or given references to landlords.

“PIBBS has really worked because of the faculty’s commitment to graduate education,” said Johnson. “It’s a program that relies on collaboration between schools and departments throughout the University.”

The program, which is sponsored by USC, even helps recruit graduate candidates for specific degree programs outside PIBBS. “Because our admissions committee is made up of faculty from the school of Pharmacy, from departments at UPC, from all over USC, they will sometimes find a candidate they want to make an offer to directly,” said Johnson. “That’s fine by us. Our only job is to bring the best Ph.D. candidates in biomedical and biological sciences into USC and give them the opportunity to go anywhere they want.”

For graduate students, PIBBS program underscores value of collaborative science

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