Biochemistry, Biophysics & Structural Biology

Washington University’s vibrant interdisciplinary graduate research environment makes it an ideal place for training in both fundamental and applied biological sciences. Students in our program start with a common curriculum and have the flexibility to tailor their path according to their own scientific needs and interests. The Biochemistry, Biophysics, & Structural Biology (BBSB) program brings together scientists who aim to understand biological systems ranging from single molecules to whole organisms at the level of chemical transformations and molecular interactions. Our students address diverse biological questions that include host-pathogen interactions, cancer-related signaling processes, and the nature of protein dynamics. BBSB faculty on both campuses share ties with DBBS programs such as Molecular Microbiology & Microbial Pathogenesis, Immunology, and Plant & Microbial Biosciences.

The BBSB program encompasses three related research areas:

Biochemistry uses the concepts and approaches of chemistry to understand the molecular basis of biological processes. Biochemical studies include enzymology, metabolism, DNA replication, cell signaling, and drug discovery. Insights from these studies may shed light on fundamental biological processes as well as mechanisms of disease, new drug treatments, and new diagnostics.

Biophysics brings together elements of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics to describe and understand biological processes. It is a fusion of scientific cultures; the systems and processes of biochemistry and computational & molecular biology are joined with the principles and quantitative laws of physical chemistry. The goal is to develop a quantitative and predictive understanding of biology at a detailed molecular level.

Structural Biology seeks a mechanistic understanding of macromolecular function through molecular structure and dynamics. X-ray diffraction, cryo-electron microscopy, and NMR are among the tools used by structural biologists, whose insights address important questions throughout biology and medicine at Washington University.

Program of study

The interdisciplinary nature of the program attracts students with diverse backgrounds. To develop an appropriately customized curriculum, each student meets at the beginning of the first year with the program directors to select courses and to discuss laboratory rotations. These meetings continue on a regular basis until the student identifies a thesis committee chair. Typically, first-year students participate in three laboratory rotations prior to selecting a thesis lab.

DBBS required courses

Graduate Research Fundamentals
Ethics and Research Science – typically taken in Year 2

BBSB specific requirements 

Chemistry and Physics of Biomolecules

Four (4) semesters of BBSB Student Seminar

A peer review seminar series in which students present their current work and receive feedback on both their science and presentation.

Three (3) advanced electives

Courses must be offered through DBBS or through Chemistry, Physics, or Mathematics Departments as 500 level graduate courses unless otherwise approved by program directors. MSTP students may use their medical courses to satisfy this requirement.

Three (3) semesters of journal clubs

DBBS and WashU have journal clubs on a variety of topics aligned with student interests. Participating students present at least once per semester for credit and will receive feedback. Students are encouraged to continue participation in journal clubs throughout their graduate career.

Qualifying examination

After taking the first year of classes and selecting a laboratory, students will develop and defend a novel research project of their own design in the qualifying exam (QE). During this process, which has both a written and oral component, students identify important gaps in knowledge based on primary literature, develop clear hypotheses, and devise quantitative experiments to test said hypotheses.

Thesis committee, proposal, and defense

Students will then assemble a thesis committee within six (6) months and propose their thesis project within nine (9) months of passing the QE. Large amounts of preliminary data are not required to propose the thesis. Significant progress on the thesis (as judged by the thesis committee and most likely including published works in peer-reviewed journals) is required prior to the thesis defense and graduation.

Alumni outcomes

BBSB graduates pursue a variety of careers. Most program graduates go into academia, but many find paths in industry, government, and other fields, like science communication, law, and business and entrepreneurship.