About the program

As a joint initiative of Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences and Harvard Medical School, the Systems, Synthetic, and Quantitative Biology program aims to explain how higher level properties of complex biological systems arise from the interactions among their parts. This new field requires a fusion of concepts from many disciplines, including biology, computer science, applied mathematics, physics and engineering. Students with backgrounds in any of these disciplines are encouraged to apply. 

Through coursework and collaborative research, we aim to enable students to combine experimental and theoretical approaches to develop physical and quantitative models of biological processes. The Program aims to introduce students to the tools that are now available, and to help them select important unsolved problems in biology that may now be possible to address using quantitative and theoretical approaches.


Incoming students will meet with the class advisors individually at the beginning of each semester to plan their initial program of graduate study. Class advisors will be available to meet with students at any time during their graduate career.

The class advisors will lead a week long orientation for incoming students at the end of August. The orientation will include a set of lectures and campus tours that will introduce students to the many resources at and around Harvard and will answer their questions regarding research, academics and the graduate program.  Students will also be paired with a senior graduate student mentor during the orientation.

After the first year a student will either choose a single faculty member as their dissertation advisor, or initiate a collaboration between two or more labs. Students may choose dissertation advisors from any science department at Harvard, including the research departments of the 11 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals.

Systems, Synthetic, and Quantitative Biology students are required to complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP) meeting with their Dissertation Advisor (or an alternate Harvard faculty mentor of their choosing) annually. An IDP provides students with the opportunity to think about their training objectives, their progress towards them, and to set and/or refine goals for the future with their mentor. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) encourages trainees to make Individualized Development Plans to help them prepare for academic and nonacademic careers.


First year students meet individually with their class advisors to discuss their background and interests, and together they design a course of study to complement the student's existing training.

Students are required to complete four science courses offered at either Harvard or MIT. A list of courses students commonly take can be found here.

In addition to these four courses, systems biology first year students enroll in three courses that help prepare them for the practice of science.

SystBio212: Communication of Science. Communicating effectively is an essential scientific skill but rarely explicitly taught. Scientists must tell people about their work—their colleagues, the broader scientific community, students and the general public. All of these audiences have different levels of expertise and different goals for learning about science. Therefore each audience needs a specific message tailored to them. Not only must scientists tailor their message, they must also deliver it in a variety of different formats—in graphics, in writing, and in talks. Scientists with strong communication skills are better teachers, better colleagues, and more persuasive advocates for science. And yet we do not typically teach scientific communication directly.

To address this gap, we designed a class where first-year students learn scientific communication in the context of problems relevant to their own research. We address three modes of scientific communication: graphics, writing and presentations.  Across all of these sections, we emphasize three core principles: teaching a process, finding the essential story and getting critical feedback. Each section consists of hands-on exercises in small peer groups. We explicitly teach students how to lead these groups and how to constructively critique one another.

SystBio300: Introduction to Systems Biology. The course is an evening seminar featuring weekly lectures by Program faculty which serves to acquaint first year students with the major research themes of the program faculty and helps them decide on research rotations and evaluate potential dissertation advisors.

SysBio220: Quantitative Measurement and Analysis. This course develops a strong intuition for designing quantitative assays and analyzing biological data, and trains students in the requirements of rigorous and reproducible experiments. In an era where many measurements are made using proprietary kits or in core facilities, students are often unfamiliar with the principles and details of experimental methods. The course focuses on the physicochemical basis of major measurement techniques in biology, and the errors and statistical pitfalls often encountered in data analysis. Students analyze common types of errors and are trained to explain limitations in computational or theoretical approaches, or in the conclusions that can be reached with a given dataset. We encourage students to question their assumptions and to understand the limitations of different experimental modalities.

MedSci300qc: Conduct of Science. The course follows a discussion group format in which 8-12 second-year students meet with a faculty member who leads discussions on the ethical and responsible conduct of research.


Students in the program are expected to take 2-4 laboratory rotations before selecting a dissertation project. This is to allow the student to explore different research areas, identify potential collaborators, and experience the environment in different research groups. The program does not set time limits on rotations, but most rotations are expected to be 4-12 weeks long.


Students are required to act as teaching fellows for one course. We recommend that students complete this requirement by the end of their second year if possible.

Preliminary Qualifying Examination

Students will be expected to complete the Preliminary Qualifying Exam by the end of March of their second year. The examination is divided into two parts:

Part 1 must be completed no later than June 1 of the first year. Students will formulate a question related to any problem in biology (on any scale) and develop a simple set of equations and/or a computer program designed to address the question in a quantitative way. Students are encouraged to discuss possible questions and models with each other and with faculty in preparing for the exam, but the final project should be their own original work. Students will prepare a short written summary and an oral presentation on their project.

Part 2 must be completed no later than the end of March of the student’s second year. Students will prepare and defend an original research proposal derived from the student’s proposed dissertation research. The proposal should define the important questions to be addressed, provide adequate background and describe some details of experiments, computation and/or theoretical work to be undertaken.


After completing the PQE, students will be required to meet once a year with a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC) consisting of their advisor(s) and three additional faculty. This should help refine the student’s ideas about their dissertation project and define the scope, direction and overall soundness of the idea.

The role of the DAC is to assist the student in defining the dissertation project, review scientific progress, offer critical evaluation, suggesting extension or modification of objectives, arbitrate differences of opinion between the student and the advisor if they arise, and decide when the work accomplished constitutes a dissertation.  We expect that students will complete their dissertation by their fifth or sixth year of study.