PhD in Integrative Life Sciences – Behavioral & Statistical Genetics Concentration (PhD ILS-BSG) – The doctoral degree in Integrative Life Sciences with the Behavioral and Statistical Genetics concentration (ILS-BSG) was designed by faculty at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. VIPBG is an interdisciplinary institute that brings together faculty with backgrounds ranging from statistical and molecular genetics to epidemiology, psychology, psychiatry, and neurosciences, all with the joint focus of understanding how genetic and environmental factors impact the development of psychiatric and substance use disorders and other behavioral and psychological outcomes.

Faculty members also apply genetic epidemiological, genomics, and molecular biology approaches and develop statistical methods. Students in the ILS-BSG track will receive interdisciplinary training with coursework in psychology and psychiatry, epidemiology, statistical and molecular genetics. Students can tailor their training, electives and areas of research to match their career goals and prior experience.

Training Program Objectives – The ILS-BSG PhD program is intended to set the tone for a career and life-long learning in psychiatric, behavioral and statistical genetics by developing knowledge of the field and skills in: critical thinking, study design, literature review, laboratory techniques, data collection, analysis, interpretation, and integration, written and oral communication. Training fosters the student’s development as an independent researcher, laboratory director or teacher.

PhD Program – The PhD degree requires at least three years of study for students entering with a B.S. or B.A. degree. Students working toward the PhD degree in ILS-BSG pass through two stages of graduate study. The first stage consists primarily of course work recommended by the BSG program and the student’s Graduate Committee; the second of the development and execution of original research leading to the doctoral dissertation. A PhD is awarded as the ultimate recognition of a student’s achievement of independent, creative and publishable research.

Admissions Criteria – All applicants must have earned a baccalaureate degree or its equivalent at the time of enrollment. Applicants holding an undergraduate degree from recognized foreign institutions must display an acceptable level of English proficiency by achieving a score of 100 on the TOEFL examination. Because the ILS-BSG is an interdisciplinary training program we encourage students from a variety of backgrounds to apply. Our current trainees have undergraduate degrees in many different majors. Students with background in biology, genetics, statistics, mathematics, psychology, or other relevant biological/social science and/or math courses are preferred. However, extensive background across all of these areas is not necessary. The training program curriculum is flexible to allow students to take heavier course content in areas in which they need additional training to achieve an interdisciplinary foundation. We place emphasis on finding students with strong academic records and interests that match the training goals and research areas of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

Application Materials – All applicants must provide the following:

  1. Official transcripts of all prior undergraduate/graduate work.
  2. A statement of purpose for application to the program:
    • why the applicant wishes to pursue a PhD in the ILS-BSG program
    • background experience relevant to pursuing a PhD in the ILS-BSG program
    • research interests and potential faculty mentors
    • description of the applicant’s career goals
  3. Three current letters of recommendation.
  4. International applicants must also provide: scores from a Test of English as a Foreign Language [TOEFL] or an [IELTS]: International English Language Testing System from VCU’s Office of International Education.

Application Process – Applications for graduate study in the area of ILS-BSG can be initiated through VCU’s Graduate School Admissions. To get started, create an account and then Add Program. In the drop-down menus for School, Start Term, Program Level and Campus select VCU Life Sciences, Fall, Doctoral and Monroe Park. This will generate two options. Select ‘Integrative Life Sciences’.

Applications are only considered for admission in the fall. All materials must be received by Jan. 10 to receive full consideration. Visit the VCU Graduate Bulletin website for specific admission requirements. Preference is given to applicants with pre-identified research advisers, so applicants are strongly encouraged to contact potential research advisers prior to submitting application materials and to identify potential research advisers in their personal statements. For additional information or questions about the ILS-BSG concentration, please contact Hermine Maes, Ph.D.

Funding – Typically, funding for the first two years comes from the Center for Integrative Life Sciences and the VCU Graduate School. Graduate students in the ILS-BSG program are funded through a variety of sources, including University Graduate School Fellowships, NIH grants held by individual VIPBG faculty, and VIPBG training grants. Funding includes tuition and a stipend. Graduate student stipends for the ILS-BSG program generally meet or exceed NIH levels. Read more about Current NIH stipend levels.

The courses taken by all PhD students during the first two years of study are listed below with number of credit hours in brackets:

  • PBSG Seminar HGEN 610-002 [1]
  • LFSC Seminar LFSC630-690 [1-2]
  • Directed Research LFSC 697 [variable]
  • Scientific Integrity OVPR 601 [1]
  • Grant Writing PSYC 700/GRAD 614 [3]
  • Data Science I HGEN 611 [3]
  • Epidemiology of Psychiatric & Substance Use Disorders^ EPID 646 [3]
  • Principles of Human Behavioral Genetics HGEN 620 [3]
  • Statistics for Genetic Studies HGEN 651 [3]
  • Statistics for Genetic Studies II HGEN 652 [3]
  • Human Genetics^ HGEN 501 [3]
  • Advanced Human Genetics HGEN 502 [3]
  • Topics in Assessment of Psychopathology CCTR 691 [1]
  • Intro to R HGEN 517 [1]
  • Quantitative Genetics HGEN 619 [3]
  • Mathematical and Statistical Genetics* HGEN 603 [3]

^ waived for MD/PhD students

Core Course Descriptions

HGEN 610-002 PBSG Seminar. A 1-credit course, offered each semester. Students will be enrolled each semester they are in the program but course credit will only be required for four semesters for PhD students and two semesters for MD/PhD students.

LFSC 630 Integrative Life Sciences Seminar. A 2-credit course, taken in the first semester.

LFSC 690 Research Seminar in Integrative Life Sciences. A 1-credit course, offered each semester. Students will be enrolled for the first four semesters. The course will include presentation and discussion of research topics and published papers of current interest within the field of biomedical and biobehavioral sciences, focusing on interdisciplinary research.

LFSC 697 Directed Research. Students may register for 1-5 credits per semester with a required minimum of 2 credits and a maximum of 6 credits. Focuses on providing the student with real world research experience under the direction of a VIPBG-VCU faculty member and facilitating independent design and conducting an interdisciplinary research project.

OVPR 601-602 Scientific Integrity. A survey of contemporary issues relating to responsible conduct in research. Topics include academic integrity, mentoring, authorship and peer review, use of humans and animals in biomedical research, ownership of data, intellectual property, conflict of interest, scientific record keeping, collaborative research, research misconduct and genetic technology.

PSYC 700 Grant Writing. Students are expected to enter course with a pre-approved topic identified and substantial background reading completed. Focuses on preparing an NIH grant application, using F31-F32 mechanism (predoctoral or postdoctoral National Research Service Award) as a model. Course covers elements of a grant application, details of the grant review process, and key features of successful applications. Students prepare a research plan for their own application based upon their current work.

GRAD 614 Introduction to Grant Writing. Introduction to grant-writing process. Topics include basic components of a grant application, writing the proposal, identifying funding sources, understanding proposal guidelines and the grant proposal review process.

HGEN 611 Data Science I. Course Director: Tim York and Dana Lapato. Introduces data science tools and techniques that support efficient and reproducible scientific computing. Topics include data management/acquisition, cleaning, reshaping, manipulation, analysis, and visualization, strategies for arranging these constituent parts into cohesive workflows that are verifiable, easily repeatable and consistent with best practices for reproducible computational research using the statistical programming language R.

EPID 646 Epidemiology of Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders. Course director: Elizabeth Prom-Wormley. Introduction of descriptive and analytic epidemiology for major mental disorders of childhood, adulthood, and late adult life. Examine issues of classification and nosology of psychiatric disorders as well as operational case definitions and measurement techniques for field surveys and risk factor research.

HGEN 620 Principles of Human Behavioral Genetics. Course Director: Judy Silberg. The theory of genetic and non-genetic transmission considered in relation to design, analysis, and interpretation of studies to identify the principal genetic and environmental causes of behavioral variation. Included will be analysis of intelligence, personality, social attitudes, and psychiatric and substance use disorders, and brain imaging.

HGEN 651 Statistics for Genetic Studies I. Course Director: Michael Neale. Introduction to common statistical theory and basic methods common in quantitative and statistical genetics. Review of mathematical components underlying statistical analysis and intro to probability theory and linear models such as linear regression and analysis of variance. This course will be offered as the first course in the BSG PhD methods sequence.

HGEN 652 Statistics for Genetic Studies II. Course Director: Michael Neale. Topics include issues and extensions of regression models, factor analysis and structural equation modeling. This course will be offered as the second course in the BSG PhD methods sequence.

HGEN 501 Human Genetics. Course Director: Joyce Lloyd. Comprehensive examination of fundamentals of human genetics. Topics include modes of inheritance (Mendelian and non- Mendelian), pedigree analysis, cytogenetics, molecular genetics (gene structure and function, epigenetics, gene expression), biochemical genetics, diagnostic testing and genetic counseling.

HGEN 502 Advanced Human Genetics. Course Director: Brien Riley. Comprehensive study of principles of specific areas in human genetics. Explores topics including quantitative genetics, genetic epidemiology, gene mapping, model organisms, characterization of Mendelian and complex disease genes, and bioinformatics.

CCTR 691 Assessment of Psychopathology. Course Director: Roxann Roberson-Nay. Introduction to psychiatric phenomenology, nosology, & classification, particularly conceptual and methodological considerations in assessment of psychiatric disorders and related psychological processes for research in genetics, epidemiology, and neuroscience.

HGEN 517 Introduction to Statistical Programming in R. Course Director: Tim York. Introduction to statistical programming in R. Fundamentals for efficient handling and exploration of common data set structures in biomedical sciences with examples and exercises focused on use of genetic data. Hands-on and problem driven sessions. No computer programming experience required. Undergraduate course in basic statistical concepts encouraged.

HGEN 619 Quantitative Genetics. Course Director: Hermine Maes. Introduction to structural equation modeling applied to genetically informative data using the R package OpenMx. Topics include model fitting in OpenMx, biometrical genetics, basic twin methodology, heterogeneity, multivariate, developmental, causal and extended twin modeling.

HGEN 603 Mathematical and Statistical Genetics. Course Director: Tim York. Introduction to theoretical and applied population genetics. Focus on statistical methods for analyzing genomewide association studies (GWAS) and genome sequence data.

HGEN 612 Data Science II. Course Director: Tim York. Introduces advanced techniques for reproducible research. Topics include Unix-based command-line environment and applications for manipulating data, automating workflows and recording incremental changes to research materials, R programming methods for solving research challenges, development of R packages.