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Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences

Get in touch

To learn more about our program, please contact our program director:

Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education
Virginia Commonwealth University
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2012
Phone: (804) 827-7038


The doctoral program in integrative life sciences is a flexible, interdisciplinary program designed for students seeking new ways to answer emerging research questions. While still centered on a core academic curriculum, this program offers opportunities to draw from the varied disciplines that comprise VCU Life Sciences. For example, students in this program have identified genes associated with aging in yeast, characterized reproductive patterns in James River sturgeon and investigated barrier island shrub dynamics.

Today, the complexity of any question in the life sciences requires a mastery of multiple disciplines. The ILS program aims to manage and efficiently exploit expanded realms of knowledge — objectives inherent in the broad concepts of systems biology and biological complexity. Life scientists must now meld technological skills, information processing, modeling and systems organization in order to study biological phenomena. The courses and philosophy of the ILS program reflect this need and are intended to equip students for future careers in modern biological sciences.

Program requirements

The ILS program includes core courses, electives and directed research, as well as a comprehensive examination, thesis, dissertation and oral defense of one’s research project. For specific degree and curriculum requirements, please visit the VCU Graduate Bulletins website.


Students will undertake an interdisciplinary dissertation research project that exploits the many research opportunities throughout VCU and encompasses multiple scales of study. It should represent a significant contribution to the body of knowledge in its field and be deemed suitable for publication in refereed journals.

Since its inception, students in this program have conducted their research in the laboratories of investigators from more than 13 departments. Examples of dissertation projects have included:

  • Enhanced Environmental Detection of Uranyl Compounds Based on Luminescence Characterization
  • Systematics and Biogeography of the Didymopanax Group of Schefflera (Araliaceae)
  • Consequences of Shrub Encroachment: Linking Changes in Canopy Structure to Shifts in the Resource Environment
  • Linking Physiological Responses, Chlorophyll Fluorescence and Hyperspectral Imagery to Detect Environmental Stress in Coastal Plants
  • Application of Shortest-Path Network Analysis to Identify Genes That Modulate Longevity in Saccharomyces Cerevisiae
  • Addressing Issues in the Detection of Gene-Environment Interaction Through the Study of Conduct Disorder


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. First-year tuition and fees and stipends are available for qualified students.

For more information on applying to VCU as a domestic student, visit the VCU Graduate Admissions website. For information on applying to VCU as an international student, visit the VCU International Admissions website.

Program mission

The ILS program is designed for students who want to conduct research that is integrative across multiple disciplines and that takes a systems approach to emerging research questions across the many fields that comprise the life sciences. Students may opt to work with faculty members from departments across VCU’s campus. The program provides the opportunity to conduct interdisciplinary research at multiple scales of study from the molecular to ecosystem levels with an emphasis on the concepts of systems biology and biological complexity.

Program goals

  1. Interdisciplinary knowledge and skills: The core curriculum of the ILS program will effectively assist students in gaining understanding of modern systems biology along with training in the interdisciplinary skills and knowledge increasingly required for doing effective research in the life sciences. It will also foster progressive development of a mastery of the current state of the research in students’ areas of interest as they seek to identify key focus areas for their integrative research.
  2. Research skills: The mentored research component of the program, building on the core curriculum and interdisciplinary elective course work, will foster development of an ability to synthesize this learning and identify key focus areas for integrative research. It will support students as they learn how to design, implement and interpret interdisciplinary experimental approaches that will best address their research questions.
  3. Communication skills: Students in the program will develop skills in both written and oral communication of life science knowledge, experimental design, results and interpretation to a variety of potential audiences.

Student learning outcomes

  1. Oral communication skills: The candidate will demonstrate the achievement of an appropriate level of oral communication skills with respect to the content, organization, logical flow, presentation and appropriate use of language incorporating the use of visual aids, as measured by rubric.
  2. Written communication skills: The candidate will demonstrate the achievement of an appropriate level of written communication skill with respect to grammar, syntax, spelling and use of vocabulary to effectively present information including the use of figures, tables and citations, as measured by rubric.
  3. Experimental design: The candidate will demonstrate the achievement of an appropriate level of competence in the ability to appraise, modify, and/or create and implement experimental protocols and to design and develop experiments, as measured by rubric.
  4. Problem-solving skills: The candidate will demonstrate an appropriate level of skill in the identification and selection of meaningful problems to be addressed in bioscience research, including the ability to defend said identifications and to design and develop appropriate methods to solve said problems, as measured by rubric.
  5. Integrated knowledge: The candidate will demonstrate an appropriate level of knowledge of the life sciences and a more detailed understanding of the disciplines most pertinent to their own interdisciplinary research areas, including an appropriate familiarity with the research literature and the ability to evaluate and critique publications, as measured by rubric.

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