The past year has seen continued changes in the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences (WCGS) as we have worked together to take the School to the next level of academic prominence. In this newsletter, I will highlight some of the events of the past year and discuss initiatives that our community can expect to see in the coming year. This is an exciting time for the WCGS with the growth of our outstanding faculty dedicated to train the next generation of scientists, recruitment of an exceptional incoming class of students, appointment of office staff committed to improving the experience for our trainees, faculty- and student-led initiatives to improve the curriculum and expand a suite of career development activities, and enhanced, inclusive community-building events. The Graduate School leadership is committed to continuing our efforts to build an interactive community of mentors, trainees, and staff that will make the WCGS second to none in the nation.
A total of 580 students are currently enrolled in WCGS. This includes 347 PhD students from our seven biomedical science programs, 27 PhD Tri-I Chemical Biology students, 37 PhD Tri-I Computational Biology students, 41 MD-PhD students currently in the graduate phase of their training, and 128 Master’s students. It has been a pleasure to get to know many of them through monthly “Dinners with the Dean.” These intimate gatherings give the students the opportunity to share their ideas and experiences with each other and with me. I am grateful that they are not shy about making suggestions, many of which we have implemented to improve the student experience.
I am proud to report that last May we graduated 69 students with PhD and 73 students with Master’s degrees. We have established a new “exit checklist” process that will allow us to learn from the experiences our students have encountered and to keep in touch with our newest alumni. Our graduates are doing exciting things with their WCGS degrees as they embark on the next stage of their careers, and we expect to hear more about their achievements over time.
ADMINISTRATION AND LEADERSHIP
I am incredibly grateful to the administrative leadership team that has worked so hard this past year. Dr. David Christini has continued to expand the scope of his position as Associate Dean for Programmatic Development. Under David’s leadership, several standing committees, with representation from each of our PhD programs, now meet on a regular basis. During the past year, the Curriculum Committee has had a significant impact on educational programs for our students. We have implemented a comprehensive course evaluation system, with nearly 100% participation from students, that will give important feedback to our instructors for improvement of their course offerings. Recognizing that all biomedical disciplines now employ analysis of large data sets, the Curriculum Committee advised implementation of a new one-quarter quantitative biology course, which the Executive Committee has made mandatory for all students. The Curriculum Committee also worked closely with BCMB as this program has revised its core curriculum with a great response from our current first-year class. David also chairs our new Awards Committee, which has made the process for limited submission fellowship grants more transparent and inclusive. The Awards Committee evaluates prospective proposals, chooses those deemed most competitive, and gives advice to our students to improve the final submission. The Awards Committee also advises me on the Distinguished Alumnus Award and Rachele Prize winners and, in the coming year, will be expanding its scope to consider additional faculty and student awards.
Dr. Randi Silver has continued to serve as Associate Dean for Student Affairs, providing oversight to our students as they navigate the complexities of graduate school. Randi is also the point person for our efforts to combine student services for graduate students with those for medical students, enhancing experiences for both. Randi plays a key oversight role of the Physician Assistants (PA) Program. In the past year, she has worked closely with its Director, Dr. Gerald Marciano, to recruit new faculty, improve the educational experience for the students, and admit top candidates to this highly competitive program. The Master of Science in Health Sciences for Physician Assistants enjoyed a very successful 2014-15 academic year. The applicant pool rose by 40%, facilitating the matriculation of an academically excellent group of students. We look forward to another strong year of superbly qualified applicants for the next academic year. The tremendously successful WCGS PA program continues to lead such programs nationally.
Just over one year ago, Dr. Jacob Sneva was appointed as the administrative director of the Graduate School. In a very short time, Jake led a complete revamping of the graduate school office, redirecting the efforts of all staff to emphasize their roles in improving the student and faculty experience. Over the past year, we have recruited a number of outstanding individuals committed to graduate education. The graduate school office, located on the A corridor of the Sandra and Edward Meyer Building for Research and Education, is a welcoming hub of activity frequented by students in each year of study. Over the past several months, Jake has expanded his role to direct Education Administration for the graduate and medical schools, and he is working hard to develop opportunities for integration and synergy between our student populations.
Dr. Marcus Lambert is flourishing in his role as Director of Diversity and Student Services. Marcus is committed to fostering student success and creating an inclusive community across campus. From diversity initiatives to science outreach, Marcus and his team have led a strong effort to provide the services and support that are critical to the student experience. Laura Netboy-Elsesser, recently joined the Graduate School as Student Services Coordinator, and has been a key point of contact for student housing placement and international student affairs. Laura previously worked at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for International Education. We are happy to have Laura on board.
We continue to implement organizational and staffing changes to better meet the needs of students, faculty, and staff. This past year we welcomed new staff in the areas of enrollment management, student services, and financial support.
In early 2015 we welcomed Matt Cipriano as Manager of Enrollment and Educational Operations. Matt now oversees our admissions and recruitment efforts. Matt joined WCGS after 13 years working at the NYU Sackler Institute where he managed graduate enrollment. Matt is one of the founders and former vice president of BioGAP, a professional organization and networking group focused on enrollment management of biomedical science graduate programs. Shamika Jackson joined us as the new Assistant Registrar in the Student Services Office in August. Over the past several years, Shamika has held various leadership roles in the Stamford Public School system in Connecticut and in a charter school in New York City. Shamika is eager to continue her commitment to promoting academic excellence and creating positive, supportive relationships among faculty, staff, and students. Raul Orellana began his role as Finance and Data Specialist in August. Raul will be responsible for finance transactions for WCGS staff and students and will manage expense tracking and financial reporting. Raul comes to us after having served as donor services coordinator with the March of Dimes. We recently welcomed Dr. Les Krushel as Academic and Research Specialist and Manager in the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs. Les comes to us from M.D. Anderson. He works closely with Randi Silver in her role as Faculty Director of the office. We say goodbye and good luck to Lea Benguigui, Alessandra DeNardo, and Marin Schlossberg as they leave the School to take on new roles within Weill Cornell and beyond.
2015 was another great year for appointment of faculty to the Graduate School with a total of 50 new faculty approved by the Executive Committee. These include:
Immunology & Microbial Pathogenesis
David Artis, PhD
Douglas Fearon, MD
Frederic Geissman, MD, PhD
Randy Longman, MD, PhD
Kyu Rhee, MD, PhD
Andrea Schietinger, PhD
Barry Sleckman, MD, PhD
Greg Sonnenberg, PhD
Physiology, Biophysics & Systems Biology
Effie Apostolou, PhD
Michael Berger, PhD
Thomas Fuchs, Dr.Sc.
Marcin Imielinski, MD, PhD
Ekta Khurana, PhD
Eric Lai, PhD (primary appointment in Cell and Developmental Biology)
Dan Landau, MD, PhD
Robert Schwartz, MD, PhD
Adam Siepel, PhD
Heidi Stuhlmann, PhD (primary appointment in Cell and Developmental Biology)
Healthcare Policy & Research
Karla Ballman, PhD
Samprit Banerjee, PhD
Yuhua Bao, PhD
Tara Bishop, MD, MPH
Lawrence Casalino, MD, PhD
James Flory, MD, MSCE
Linda Gerber, PhD, MA
Zachary Grinspan, MD
Arian Jung, PhD
Sameer Malhotra, MD, MS
Jyotishman Pathak, PhD
Michael Pesko, PhD
Joshua Richardson, MLIS, PhD
Daniel Stein, MD, PhD
This year’s incoming class of 49 PhD students hail from seven different countries including Taiwan, Germany, China, Mongolia, Italy, Korea, India, and of course all corners of the United States. Thirty students are female, and nineteen are male. BCMB (Biochemistry & Structural Biology, Cell & Developmental Biology, and Molecular Biology), Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis, Neuroscience, Pharmacology, and PBSB (Physiology, Biophysics and Systems Biology) will be welcoming 10, 7, 9, 11, and 12 students, respectively. The matriculating students are graduates of some of the top institutions in the U.S., such as Cornell University, Harvard University, Brown University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Brandeis University, Morehouse College, New York University, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins University, Vassar College, as well as premier international universities such as University of Cambridge and Wuhan University.
A sense of community can often be felt in our residence halls, classrooms, and labs, as well as in our online platforms, including the newly-redesigned website and our Facebook page. On these platforms, we shared the excitement of two PBSB students, Kaitlyn Gayvert and Neel Madhukar, who were featured in Forbes 2016 list of “30 under 30,” as well as five students (Michael Kaufmann, Jenny Knauss, Emily Mercer, Suveg Pandey, Alec Stranahan - Team Solid Solutions) who won first place in the Columbia Graduate Student Consulting Contest. We congratulated Robert Frawley, Srivarsha Rajshekar, and Marta Kovatcheva, the winners of the inaugural WCGS/GSK Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition. We enthusiastically celebrated the 69 PhD, 40 physician assistant, and 33 MS degree recipients of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. (You may view photos from 2015 Commencement and Convocation ceremonies here.) And let’s not forget, the championship trophy of the WCGS summer softball team, known as the “Isotopes,” proudly sits on display in the Graduate School front office.
In areas of diversity and outreach, the Weill Cornell Women in Science (WiS) group hosted multiple events this past winter. These included a mentoring event for 24 high school students interested in the STEM fields. The day consisted of several research talks by female graduate students and lab tours. The WiS group also hosted 30 middle school-aged Girl Scouts at the Rockefeller outreach labs for a science day where they learned about DNA. WiS has a full schedule of events planned for the rest of the year. In addition, Marcus runs a summer pipeline research program, the WCGS ACCESS program, for underserved college students. He plans an ambitious recruitment schedule to ensure that our institution is a beacon for scientists from all backgrounds.
Graduate students worked hard to promote public awareness of scientific research by continuing to expand the student opportunities that were created as part of last year’s outreach effort. The Tri-I Outreach Committee (TOrC) hosted the 2nd annual Weill Cornell Science Immersion Program Poster Session and the Students Modeling a Research Topic (SMART) Program. In both programs, a high school or college student works with a WCGS student or post-doc on a scientific project in a laboratory setting and the mentees present their research in a symposium. In collaboration with Rockefeller Outreach, TOrC volunteers also planned and hosted Brain Awareness and Science Days for local schools throughout the year.
Graduate Student Executive Council (GSEC)
GSEC has had another active and exciting year organizing graduate student social activities, advocating for the students within the administration, and providing outreach opportunities. Additionally, GSEC partnered with other student groups and WCGS on several new initiatives.
GSEC worked with WCGS to sponsor their first non-perishable food drive during the holiday season. With the help of our community, we collected over 200 items consisting of canned food, cereal, spaghetti, and chocolate to donate to City Harvest, the world’s first food rescue organization.
Students also helped establish The Wellness Initiative, a student-led coalition between the graduate students, medical students, and members of the faculty to better meet the wellness needs of our student body. The Wellness Initiative kicked off their speaker-led seminar series with an event on transcendental meditation led by invited speaker Bob Roth. Following the success of this event, they plan to continue this seminar series on a bimonthly schedule, focusing on relevant wellness topics. The coalition also plans to facilitate student-led activity groups, such as walking tours and race training.
This year GSEC organized a multitude of graduate student social events, including a Halloween Potluck, a Thanksgiving Potluck, a ski trip, the End-of-the-Year Party, and Science on Tap, a Tri-I chalk talk. It also provides ongoing support to student-run clubs and the Vincent du Vigneaud Research Symposium, and holds elections for subcommittees to help organize orientation and recruitment activities across the Graduate School. GSEC completed its fourth annual student survey designed to direct our efforts to the matters most important to students, and worked with the Curriculum Committee to help establish WCGS course surveys.
Science & Disease: We continued our Science & Disease series this past year, enrolling 49 first-year PhD students in five small group discussion sessions about the intersection of science and medicine. During these sessions, students heard firsthand about the research and careers of Drs. Lew Cantley, BJ Casey, Peggy Crow, Mike Glickman, Tim Hla, Carl Nathan, Greg Petsko, David Artis, John Blenis, Gabriela Chiosis, Sabine Ehrt, Fred Maxfield, Tim McGraw, Sheila Nirenberg, Charles Sawyers, Craig Thompson, and myself. The feedback from this series is outstanding, with the students particularly appreciating the opportunity for informal chats with our faculty about their career paths and choices. I am very appreciative of the time and effort the faculty put into leading each of these sessions. We look forward to continuing this series this coming year.
WCGS website: In September the Graduate School unveiled its new website (http://gradschool.weill.cornell.edu/). We have frequent visits and the response of users is outstanding. We continue to solicit feedback and encourage anyone with comments or suggestions to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Highlights of our new site include a robust faculty and research topic search mechanism designed to allow visitors the ability to easily find faculty and/or their key areas of research. Current students are able to access key forms, checklists and program guides without being required to login to a secure site, allowing them access to any of this information as long as they have an internet connection. In addition, the new website platform is user-friendly when accessed from a table or mobile device. Lastly, the new site provides testimonials from students, faculty and alumni, who discuss their unique experience studying and working at WCGS.
Tri-Institutional Minority Society: Many of our students are active in the Tri-Institutional Minority Society (TIMS), a scientific society that welcomes all students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty members, lab technicians, and other members of the Weill Cornell, Rockefeller, and Memorial Sloan Kettering communities. The TIMS mission is to build community and provide support to traditionally under-represented minorities in science. The inaugural TIMS reception was attended by more than 80 students and postdocs in 2014, with a fantastic follow-up reception this past fall that included wine, dessert, and live jazz in Weill Cornell’s Belfer Skylight Lounge. To increase minority faculty interaction with students, TIMS also sponsors luncheons with faculty and guest speakers known as the “Mentorship Meals” series. Thus far it has included faculty members Dr. Joseph Osborne, Dr. Andrea Morris, Dr. Catherine Hartley, and Dr. Linnie Golightly.
Program Reviews: One of the most important ways to ensure that the Graduate School programs are providing the optimal educational experience for our students is to perform a periodic self-assessment followed by rigorous peer review. We have established a process for an in-depth self-study, followed by an internal review for each of our programs. Each program will then have a two-year period to respond to suggestions emanating from the review after which external reviewers will be invited to provide feedback to the program and the Graduate School. We will be piloting our self-study and internal review process this year with an examination of the Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis and Pharmacology programs.
Town Hall Meeting: On June 2, our first annual faculty town hall meeting was convened by the Graduate School leadership to inform the faculty about progress and changes that had occurred in the past year, with the discussion focusing on improved means for student tracking and oversight, suggestions to decrease time to degree completion, curricular developments, and our overall efforts to increase the quality of the student experience. The turnout for this meeting was outstanding and the discussion robust. We plan to repeat this faculty town hall each spring and to add a complementary student town hall starting this spring.
3-Minute Thesis Competition: On November 11, we held our first annual Three-Minute Thesis (3MT®) event in Uris Auditorium, in conjunction with the Gerstner Sloan Kettering (GSK) graduate school. 3MT, founded by the University of Queensland, Australia, is an event that "cultivates students’ academic, presentation, and research communication skills. The competition supports their capacity to effectively explain their research in three minutes, in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience.” Additionally, we saw the 3MT as a community-building event for the fall semester that could grow to complement our spring-semester DuVigneaud Research Day event. Sixteen students participated in preliminary round events, with ten advancing to the final November 11 event. Approximately 180 people watched the finalists use one slide and three minutes to describe their research. A panel of judges representing students, faculty, and medical college staff judged the presentations. The event was fun and spirited, with two of the three judged winners coming from WCGS – 1st place: Rob Frawley (PBSB, laboratory of Dr. Carl Blobel), 2nd place: Srivarsha Rajshekar (BCMB, laboratory of Dr. Mary Goll) and 3rd place: Marta Kovatcheva (GSK doctoral student). Rob and Srivarsha also tied for the “People’s Choice” award as voted by the audience. We look forward to holding a 3MT competition each year.
QBio course: Quantitative Biology I (modified from a pre-existing PBSB course) launched as a mandatory requirement for all WCGS students. The course, taken by 1st year PBSB students and 2nd year students in all other programs, is the first required WCGS course (other than the NIH-mandated Responsible Conduct of Research course). The requirement reflects the notion that scientists are at an advantage when they have basic fluency in biostatistics and computational biology (especially handling of very large datasets). The one-quarter course, taught by Jason Banfelder of the Physiology & Biophysics department, aimed to develop in students: (1) an ability for statistical thinking (especially in the context of large datasets generated by high-throughput methods), and (2) basic programming skills to enable automated and reproducible data handling and analysis. Ninety students (including about 10 from the Gerstner Sloan-Kettering graduate school) participated in the course this year.
AWARDS AND HONORS
On April 30, students held the 35th annual Du Vigneaud Research Symposium. This student-run research day honors Dr. Vincent Du Vigneaud, Nobel Laureate and former Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at Weill Cornell Medical College. The event featured over 90 student presentations from first-year to senior students and a keynote address by Dr. Stuart Schreiber, of the Broad Institute and Harvard University. The following students were recognized for their research excellence:
FIRST-YEAR POSTER PRESENTER AWARDS
Second Place: Lauren Forbes, “Nanoparticle Properties and their Effect on Stability and Distribution.” (Dr. Daniel Heller)
SECOND-YEAR AND ABOVE POSTER PRESENTER AWARDS
First Place: Abigail Horstmann, “ALDH1A2 (RALDH2) in Oral Cavity Squamous Cell Carcinoma.” (Dr. Lorraine Gudas)
2015 VINCENT DU VIGNEAUD AWARDS FOR ORAL PRESENTATIONS
First Place: Christina Bonvicino, “Isoflurane Depresses Dopamine Synaptic Vesicle Exocytosis.” (Dr. Hugh C. Hemmings, Jr.)
Second Place: Pui-Mun Wong, “Regulation of Autophagy by Coordinated Action of mTORC1 and Protein Phosphatase 2A.” (Dr. Xuejun Jiang)
The Julian Rachele prizes recognize outstanding publications by graduate students and are named for Dr. Julian R. Rachele, a former Dean of the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. This year there were two award winners and one honorable mention. Andrew Drysdale was recognized for the manuscript, “FAAH genetic variation enhances fronto-amygdala function in mouse and human,” published in Nature Communications. Peng Kate Gao shared the prize for her paper "Deterministic Progenitor Behavior and Unitary Production of Neurons in the Neocortex,” published in Cell. Adam Levinson received an honorable mention for his manuscript entitled, "Total Synthesis of Asperverin via an Iodine(III)-Mediated Oxidative Cyclization"published in Organic Letters. Andrew and Kate gave a brief synopsis of their award-winning work at this year’s Convocation.
At Commencement, the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences honored Dr. Avery August with the 2015 Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences Distinguished Alumnus Award. Dr. August graduated in 1994 with a PhD from the Immunology Program, working in the laboratory of Dr. Bo Dupont. Dr. August is Professor and Chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. This award, honors Dr. August’s exceptional achievements in research and education and his successes as an academic leader.
The WCGS Commencement speaker last year was Dr. Igor Dikiy who matriculated in the program of Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology in 2009. Igor completed his PhD in the laboratory of Dr. David Eliezer studying the effects of post-translational modifications on alpha-synuclein binding to membranes. He is pursuing a postdoc in structural biology in the lab of Dr. Kevin Gardner at the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center.
Institutional Training Grants (T32s) and Individual Fellowships: Training grants are essential for the Graduate School as they defray some of the costs of training and provide much appreciated peer review of our programs. We recognize, however, that writing T32 applications is an onerous task. Accordingly, as noted in last year’s newsletter, David Christini has spearheaded a program to decrease the burden on PIs writing training grants by providing templates for some of the information that is necessary for any T32 application. We are also working towards a means for our student and faculty information systems to automatically fill in some of the tables that make up the bulk of T32 applications. We can also provide grants that have fared well in the review process along with the review comments received by the PI to guide others. The program is a work in progress, but all graduate school faculty should be aware that the School will provide any assistance it can to facilitate submission of institutional training grants.
This year we were pleased to learn that Drs. Heidi Stuhlmann and Steven Gross successfully competed for renewal of training grants focusing on Cell Biology and Pharmacology respectively. There are several other T32s that have been submitted and are currently under review. I am extremely grateful to the faculty and staff who put so much time and effort into these submissions.
In addition to institutional training grants submitted by faculty, the Graduate School is prioritizing individual training grants submitted by our students. Grant writing is a crucial skill for PhD students who will be responsible for seeking external research support as part of their future careers. Even for students who will not be directing their own laboratories down the line, the process of writing a fellowship application is tremendously helpful in focusing one’s thinking about one’s current research project and is an excellent exercise to identify potential holes in experimental design that can be proactively addressed. For these reasons, plus the benefit for our students of having successfully competed for extramural support, we are strongly encouraging all students eligible for such support to prepare and submit applications. Our students have risen to this challenge, with the number of applications nearly doubling during the past academic year.
We appreciate that the effort our students are making in preparing their fellowship applications should be matched with an effort by the Graduate School to help teach the skills necessary for successful fellowship application preparation. Accordingly, during the past year, Dr. Xiaoai Chen established a series of application preparation workshops. A 4-session workshop was held in advance of the annual NSF application deadline and of each of the three NIH individual F fellowship application deadlines. These workshops provide: (1) an overview of the fellowship mechanism and application process; (2) step-by-step directions for completing and submitting the application; (3) didactic discussions about strategies for crafting successful application sections (e.g., Specific Aims, Personal Statements); (4) discussions with members of our faculty who serve on NIH fellowship review panels (for insider tips to success); (5) access to a repository of successful applications and the corresponding summary statements; (6) institutional boilerplate information to ease application development (e.g., description of Responsible Conduct of Research course); and (7) and peer-review of applications. Participants report that the peer-review component is especially valuable: prior to each session, students submit the assigned section of the application, and then review their peers’ applications. We will continue to develop this ongoing initiative to help our students.
For the 2015-2016 academic year, 32 students at Weill Cornell hold individual fellowships including those from federal agencies (such as NIH and NSF) and private foundations (such as Ford, Fulbright, and PhRMA Foundation). Collectively, these individual student research fellowships result in $1.25 million in funding this fiscal year. In addition to supporting individual fellowship applications, the Graduate School also helped our faculty Program Directors in preparing institutional training grants submissions and competitive renewals. For the 2015-2016 academic year, WCGS faculty held 5 institutional training grants (4 from NIH, 1 from New York State), bringing annual revenue of $1.1 million to the Graduate School and supporting 24 students.
PLANS FOR THE COMING YEAR
Proposal writing course: The Curriculum Committee is working to develop a school-wide proposal writing course. Such a course, which the committee envisions as a one-quarter course that would be optional for all students, would complement our fellowship application preparation workshops. One notion is that the new course would be offered to pre-ACE students to introduce them to the general proposal development skills and strategies that will help them with their ACE proposal and future fellowship applications.
Alumni affairs: Working closely with External Affairs, we have recently hired a new director for alumni affairs who will be responsible for implementing an exciting and engaging alumni affairs program. Soon we will begin reaching out to our alumni, learning more about their careers and developing opportunities for student-alumni interaction. We’ll also be engaging alumni to solicit their feedback through focus groups and alumni events across the country.
Faculty teaching award: This year we are re-launching the WCGS Teaching and Mentoring Faculty Award, which will recognize a WCGS faculty member who has distinguished her/himself in teaching and/or mentoring of students, postdocs, and/or faculty.
Student service awards: We also expect to launch WCGS Student Service Awards, which will recognize one or a group of WCGS students who have distinguished themselves in service to the Graduate School, WCM, MSKCC, the larger community, or beyond.
WCM tuition benefit for employees: Starting this spring semester, Weill Cornell Medicine staff may apply for a Human Resources tuition benefit to defray the cost of enrolling in a PhD course as a non-degree seeking student. Application and details are available at studentservices.weill.cornell.edu.
Thank you to all of our talented faculty, staff, and students who have contributed to such a productive year at the Graduate School. I am thrilled with this year’s progress and am eager to see how much farther we can go in the coming year. Together, we will continue to train investigators working at the cutting edge of biomedical research, prepare them for successful careers, and support them as they transition to becoming the scientific leaders of the future.
Gary Koretzky, MD, PhD
Dean, Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences
Senior Associate Dean for Research
Professor, Department of Medicine