Campus & Community

Graduate life science study to be unified

4 min read

Reorganization to streamline programs, increase flexibility

Harvard’s disparate graduate programs in the life sciences will be unified under a single programmatic umbrella beginning in July in a reorganization that aims to increase coordination between the individual courses of study and allow greater student mobility and programmatic versatility.

The change will unite nine existing graduate programs in the life sciences, at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), at Harvard Medical School’s (HMS) Division of Medical Education, Harvard Dental School, and at the Harvard School of Public Health. Starting in July, the programs will exist in a new Harvard Integrated Life Sciences Program.

“Thanks to the hard work of the faculty who examined this issue, Harvard University has a new structure for graduate studies in the life sciences, which will give our students and the programs in which they enroll the flexibility to adapt to the changes brought about by rapid progress in the life sciences,” said Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers.

The new program grew out of a yearlong effort spearheaded by Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Peter Ellison and by Marc Kirschner, Carl W. Walter Professor of Systems Biology and head of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Systems Biology.

Ellison and Kirschner headed a faculty committee created by Provost Steven E. Hyman to study the issue. After a year’s effort by a smaller working group and by the whole committee, the committee recommended changes that would build on the existing programs’ current strengths, but that would put them under a single administrative unit.

The changes will not dramatically impact the way graduate programs in the life sciences are run, at least initially. Individual programs will still be run, day-to-day, by specific departments at FAS, at the School of Public Health, the Dental School, and by Harvard Medical School’s Division of Medical Education.

As the administrative structure gets up and running, however, students should find it easier to explore across traditional boundaries. Faculty may also benefit through greater contact and closer coordination with colleagues in different departments and schools, potentially sparking new research collaborations.

The new structure will also allow the examination of emerging trends in the life sciences, including the need for new degree programs.

“This important step strengthens Harvard’s competitive advantage by making the resources of the whole University available to our students,” said Hyman.

The move was prompted by the rapid development of new fields in life sciences and reflects the reality of life sciences research, where cooperation among researchers in different fields is increasingly common.

“The intellectual landscape in the life sciences is one of the most dynamic of any contemporary area of science or scholarship,” Ellison said. “Tremendously exciting work is occurring on many different frontiers, frontiers that are shared with other sciences and attracting many of the most creative scientists from other disciplines. Graduate education in the life sciences is in a similar ferment as graduate students seek to position themselves as the scientific pioneers of the next generation.”

Recent progress in the life sciences has also diminished the differences between graduate research and study in medical and other contexts, making desirable the removal of administrative barriers between students who study in Cambridge and researchers in Longwood.

The Harvard Integrated Life Sciences Program will be overseen by a coordinating committee and by a smaller executive committee, chaired by Christopher T. Walsh, Hamilton Kuhn Professor of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School, that will make administrative decisions regarding the program. The executive committee will be made up of five members, two each from FAS and HMS and one from the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The Integrated Life Sciences Program represents a very affirmative step in recognizing the highly integrative nature of life sciences across the whole University,” Kirschner said. “It offers a potential mechanism for responding to the rapidly changing landscape of biological research and training.”