Microbe-Host Interactions Ph.D. Program

Through new discoveries and state-of-the-science training of future scientists, the Microbe-Host Interactions Ph.D. graduate program strives to be a world-class center of excellence in biomedical research. The program’s mission evolved from the realization that while we cannot imagine our global village without germs, we can imagine a world without preventable and treatable microbial diseases. Our focus is to train students to define the interactions between microbes—specifically, bacteria and viruses—and their host organisms that lead to disease or promote health.

Researchers in the Microbe-Host Interactions (MHI) program, supported by the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, have developed innovative in vivo and in vitro systems to study basic mechanisms of bacterial and viral pathogenesis. A key direction in the Department is to use the information garnered from mammalian and microbial genomes projects to identify new genes that control the infection process and affect clinical outcomes.

The MHI program is designed to equip each student with an in-depth understanding of their particular discipline (e.g. bacterial pathogenesis or virus replication), while imparting a knowledge of host biology sufficient for understanding pathogen-host interactions. As a research training program, MHI emphasizes training in the fundamental principles that underlie hypothesis-driven research. The program also offers numerous opportunities to attend seminars by world-class researchers and to discuss recent scientific developments in various journal clubs.

  • The Microbe-Host Interactions (MHI) program – established in 2017 – is designed to equip each student with an in-depth understanding of microbiology, while imparting a knowledge of host biology sufficient for understanding pathogen-host interactions. Students can tailor learning to their particular discipline by selecting coursework in one or more of the areas of Bacteriology, Virology and Immunology. Coupled with fundamental didactic principles, the MHI program provides rigorous training in scientific writing – through a course provided in the Spring of the second year – and through a student-led journal club that focuses on cultivating the ability to critically evaluate research. Augmenting the MHI training are seminars hosted through different departments, such as the broad seminar series of the Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology Department, as well as Institutes such as the VI4. Through these combined resources, students learn to develop the skills to become a successful scientist, while exploring future career paths through the numerous types of programming set forth by the BRET office.

  • There are two routes of admission to the MHI program:

    (1) Through admission to Vanderbilt’s umbrella programs Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) or the Quantitative and Chemical Biology Program (QCB); or following completion of 2 years of coursework in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). Upon admission to the IGP/QCB umbrella programs, students follow a unified two-semester long coursework while completing four 4-week rotations. The main purpose of the lab rotations during the first (G1) year is to identify a suitable mentor and a lab environment that fits and nurtures the needs of the individual graduate student while gaining first-hand experience in state-of-the-art methodologies applied to the solution of research problems.

    After students complete the required rotations, they select an advisor's laboratory for their dissertation research by late spring or early summer of their first year. This is probably the most important decision made by a student at this stage of their professional education. This choice may therefore be discussed with the MHI Program’s Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), the IGP, QCB, or MSTP Director, or other members of the BRET office. The final selection of a mentor for Ph.D. dissertation research must be approved by the Graduate Education Committee (GEC) of the MHI program. The proposed mentor must submit formal notification to the Director of Graduate Studies of his/her intention to train a graduate student. The notification letter should include: 1) the nomination of a specific student, 2) a proposed research project for the student (3-4 sentences), and 3) a source of funding for the student’s stipend and tuition.

    (2) Direct Admission to MHI: Another avenue exists for students to enter the MHI Program. Faculty may recruit a student to enter his/her laboratory directly. “Direct admit” students participate in the graduate program offered to each IGP student but bypass the rotation period and enter the sponsoring faculty member's laboratory immediately upon the student's arrival at Vanderbilt. In this case, the mentor shall provide full financial support for the student’s tuition and stipend costs and the student is required to follow the MHI-specific program requirements.

  • To be awarded the PhD, IGP and direct-admit students must complete a total of 72 credit hours. Of these, 24 credit hours must be didactic. The remaining 48 credit hours are registered under M&IM 8999 (Non-Candidate Research, aka pre-qual) and M&IM 9999 (Ph.D. Dissertation Research; you register for this as soon as you advance to candidacy).

    The 24 didactic hours can be fulfilled by the Courses below:

    IGP Year 1 (G1) Required Coursework – Fall/Spring

    IGP 300A, Bioregulation I – Core Curriculum, FALL [8 credit hours]
    IGP 300B, Modules and Electives [4-8 credit hours] *Note that if you are interested in MHI as a program, the following electives are highly recommended, although not required:

    -- Adventure Travel Guide to the Microbial World: IGP 8002-05 [MM1] Lacy

    This module will provide an introduction to the organisms of the microbial world, their adaptations to various ecological niches, and the benefits and challenges they can cause us as visitors. Emphasis will be placed on bacteria (with some attention to fungi and unicellular eukaryotes), the toolkit for studying them, and the joy of understanding how they work. Students will be evaluated with a diverse array of writing assignments and discovery-based tasks. While geared to a student who has never had microbiology before, there should be elements of interest for all levels.

    -- Viruses: IGP 8002-16 [MM2] Ogden/Karijolich

    This module will introduce students to the amazing field of virology. We will cover the replication strategies of selected viruses and mechanisms of viral diseases. We will also discuss the utility of viruses and the contributions of virology to prokaryotic and eukaryotic molecular biology. Special topics will include the use of viruses as tools for gene delivery, the development of vaccines against viral pathogens, the development of viruses as therapies for cancer, and the emergence of viruses in human populations.

    Note that for MSTP students, 1-2 years of Medical School, with corresponding transfer credits will be counted as equivalent.

    Note that for Direct Admits, the didactic hours can be fulfilled by additional electives.

    IGP Year 1 (G1) and direct-admit MHI-specific Required Coursework – Summer

    M&IM 332 Foundations in Microbiology and Immunology I, SUMMER [2 credit hours] Cassat *Not required for students entering via the MSTP, but required for direct admits*

    The objective of this course is to familiarize learners with core concepts in immunology, microbiology, and virology. The course is divided into 10 week-long sessions in which a core component of mammalian immunity is introduced, followed by an examination of how microbial pathogens evade or dismantle the immune response.

    IGP Year 2 (G2) and direct-admit MHI-specific Required Coursework

    Fall - Students must complete one or both of the following courses:

    M&IM 328-2. Molecular Virology. [2 credit hours] Aiken/Karijolich/Ogden

    This course focuses on interactions of animal viruses with their host cells, discussed at the molecular and cellular level as model systems. Special emphasis is placed on current literature and methodology.

    M&IM 8350. Bacterial Pathogenesis through the lens of nanomachines [2 credit hours] Hadjifrangiskou

    The objective of this course is to provide learners with in-depth knowledge on core concepts of bacterial physiology in the context of pathogenesis. Students will become acquainted with core bacterial processes and how these processes are engaged and altered during infection, as well as changes in the environment (manmade and not).

    Spring - Students must complete:

    M&IM 8335 Research Proposals: Preparation & Critical Review, SPRING. [2 credit hours] Aiken/Skaar

    An essential skill for scientists in an academic setting is the ability to obtain extramural research funding through peer reviewed grant applications. This course will provide students with an introduction to scientific writing with a focus on research articles and NIH grants. The course will be mixture of lectures, large and small group discussions, “Shut up and Write” exercises, and mock study sections. Upon completion of this course, students will gain valuable skills and best-practices relevant to scientific writing while also assembling the research proposal portion of an NIH grant application focused on their thesis work. They will also gain familiarity with the NIH grant review process. Click here to view the syllabus

    -- Grading for M&IM 8335 - Grading is based on attendance, class participation, timely completion of assignments, and having assigned writing samples prepared for discussion.

    M&IM 8334 Special Topics in Molecular Pathogenesis, SPRING. [2 credit hours].

    The Special Topics in Molecular pathogenesis is comprised of a series of “nano-courses” which are 2-week long and can be selected from a menu of available courses. Students must select 4 nano-courses to fulfill the 2-credit requirement. Our Program Manager, Liz Roelfosz will complete the registration for students. Please note that the nano-course selection for STMP will vary from year to year, depending on student interests, the emergence of new techniques etc.

  • Elective courses are chosen by the student and advisor and could serve to advance the student’s specific project. Such graduate level courses outside of the Department that fit the student's research program may fulfill the 24 didactic hour requirement. Please consult with your advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies prior to registration if you wish to take an elective course outside of the Department.

    If a Master’s Thesis is decided – M&IM 369: Master's Thesis Research

    It is possible that under some circumstances a student may decide to not complete the PhD. In that case, a Master’s can be awarded. According to BRET, the Master’s thesis requirements are established by each program and – in the case of MHI – the student’s committee will define the Master’s thesis provided the following stipulations – The student’s committee provides the requirements which are discussed and reviewed with the DGS. If you are considering a Master’s, please make an appointment to meet with the DGS.