Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum

Cell Biology Curriculum Requirements and Training Activities

The Cell Biology & Physiology Curriculum is very flexible and students must pass 5, one-semester classes, which includes meeting each of the requirements (a-d), as described below:

(a) Core Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum (2 classes minimum) (or medical school course equivalents for students enrolled in the MD/PhD dual degree program):

At least one class of:
CBPH 850 Modern Concepts in Cell Biology I- Fall
CBPH 851 Modern Concepts in Cell Biology II-Spring


At least one class of:
CBPH 852 Experimental Physiology of Human Health and Disease-Fall
CBPH 853 Experimental Physiology of Human Health and Disease-Spring

(b) An elective course approved by the DGS.  It is recommended that students choose an elective from CBPH 850, 851, 852, or 853. However, elective courses in genetics, pharmacology, immunology, computational biology, biochemistry, or another discipline that enhances the student’s specific research focus may also be chosen.

(c) A comprehensive Biostatistics Course or module (for example, BBSP 610 or GNET 743 (Data Analysis and Stats) or BCB 720 (Introduction to Statistical Modeling; BCB certificate requirement) (other higher level statistics with programming languages also fulfill this requirement)

(d) 2nd year students and beyond:  Annual enrollment and participation in CBPH 855-fall/856-spring:   Career and Research Enhancement Seminar (CaRES), which includes the Presentation and Grant Writing components of the CaRES Course in Year 2.

Course Descriptions:

MODERN CONCEPTS IN CELL BIOLOGY (CBPH 850 Fall/ 851 Spring) (4 credits). Literature based discussion course on experimental approaches in Cell Biology.  Emphasis is on small group discussion and dissection of primary literature including methods, scientific logic, and critical thinking.  Each session typically includes both a discussion of key background by a faculty member and student led discussions of selected papers from the primary literature.  The course includes blocks on technologies and tools utilized to understand Cell Signaling, Cell Differentiation, Cell Cycle/Cell Death, Cytoskeleton/Motility, and Adhesion.  To facilitate discussion, the course has a prerequisite of undergraduate cell biology or biochemistry and a maximum of 12 students. For assistance with enrolling, please contact Janice Warfford, janice_warfford@med.unc.edu.  If any additional course questions, please contact , Course Director, Richard Cheney, richard_cheney@med.unc.edu.  T Th 3:00-5:00 pm. 6201 MBRB Paper Discussions

EXPERIMENTAL PHYSIOLOGY OF HUMAN HEALTH & DISEASE (CBPH 852 Fall/853 Spring) (4 credits). Students will learn the principles of cell, organ and systems physiology and pathophysiology required to identify and understand important areas of current biomedical research. Companion course to CBPH 852. Both courses will cover  a variety of physiological systems (cardiovascular, neuro, respiratory, etc), and will emphasize examples of specific diseases (channelopathies, schizophrenia, hypertension, diabetes, etc) and current research opportunities. CBPH 853 will include many examples of approaches that utilize human samples or human genomics , while CBPH 852 (offered in the fall) will focus mainly on non-human model systems (cultured cells, mice, zebrafish, drosophila, etc).  In addition to lectures and ample time for in-class discussions, both courses will have a strong emphasis on the current research literature and will include journal-club discussion of assigned papers.   For assistance with enrolling, please contact Janice Warfford, janice_warfford@med.unc.edu.  If any additional course questions, please contact , Course Director, Robert Tarran, robert_tarran@med.unc.edu . MWF 9:00-10:30AM, 7002 Marsico Hall,  Lecture Course/Paper Discussions

Additional Requirements:

Years 2 and beyond -Present a FUSION Seminar every year
-Attend CBP Department Seminar Series
-Attend CBP Curriculum dissertation defenses
-Present a poster at Research Day
-Submit an Annual Progress Report
-After dissertation proposal, hold a committee meeting on an annual basis (minimum 1 per year)
-Publish, at a minimum, one first-author or shared co-first-author primary research article. This paper must be formally accepted before the student can schedule the dissertation defense.

Students generally complete all of their classroom work by the end of their second year. Students should plan to complete all requirements for the PhD degree and defend their dissertation by the end of their fifth year in graduate school.

Written Qualifying Exam

In the CBP Curriculum, the Written Qualifying Exam focuses on the ability to read and understand published articles. The exam is designed to test comprehension, ability to evaluate and interpret data, synthesize results, formulate hypotheses, and devise tests of hypotheses.
The exam is created and assessed by a committee of six CBP Curriculum faculty selected by the DGS to represent the breadth of cell biology and physiology. Each faculty member serves for two years and two members are appointed as Co-Chairs. Each committee member assigns a research paper that addresses a topic of their choice. Committee members are reminded that students may not have had formal coursework in the area assigned. Students are given the reading list two weeks before the exam, during which time they are expected to become thoroughly familiar with the assigned papers. It is expected that for each topic students will delve deeper into the literature to best understand the conceptual and mechanistic advances claimed by each paper. Each committee member prepares a set of short-answer, essay questions designed to require about two hours to answer. These questions are reviewed by Co-chairs for appropriateness, which entails the ability to objectively determine a student’s knowledge and analytical skills. The exam is administered by e-mail on day one with 6 questions/topics.  Answers must be returned to the Student Services Manager by 5:00 PM the second day. Per UNC Graduate School policies, a student who does not pass the exam is given another opportunity, which will occur no earlier than 3 months since the previous exam and no later than, or concomitantly with, the administration of the Written Qualifying Exam the following year. A second failure of the exam results in academic ineligibility to continue in the Ph.D. program.

The Written Qualifying Exam is typically taken in May at the end of the first year in graduate school, but under very rare circumstances can be postponed until the end of year 2, usually if a student hasn’t completed the core courses. This determination is made when the student joins the Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum, during their initial consultation with their advisor.

Dissertation Committee

The student assembles a dissertation committee during the second year of training. Committees consist of at least five faculty members, a majority of which (typically 3/5) must be members of the CBP Curriculum. Others outside the Curriculum or the University are permissible, provided they are full members of the UNC Graduate Faculty or made “Fixed Term Appointees” by the Graduate School. This provision allows students to tap into expertise at Duke, NC State, and NIEHS; it is not uncommon for members of these institutions to serve on our students’ committees. The composition of the Dissertation Committee has to be approved by the DGS and the Graduate School. Therefore the composition of the Dissertation Committee should be formulated in full consultation with the thesis advisor and DGS well in advance of the first Committee meeting. A member other than the advisor is chosen to Chair the committee, and the Chair must be an active training Faculty in the CBP Curriculum. The Chair runs all committee meetings, including the preliminary oral exam (see below).

The first committee meeting must be held before the end of the Fall semester of the second year. The Oral Preliminary Exam/Dissertation Proposal, which must be held before the end of the fifth semester (i.e., December of Year 3) is typically the second meeting. After passing the Oral Preliminary Exam, each student is required to hold a dissertation committee meeting at least once every twelve months. However, more frequent meetings may be desirable, especially during periods of either rapid progress or unanticipated difficulties in the project. Meetings typically begin with a 5-10 minute private discussion between the Committee Members and the thesis advisor. Next, the thesis advisor is asked to leave the room to allow for a private discussion between the student and the Committee Members (for the dissertation proposal meeting, at the end, the student is asked to leave briefly while the thesis committee discusses the performance and the result of the examination, before asking the student to return to the room). Then, the student and their committee are required to discuss progress, goals and a timetable for the next meeting, and the status of work toward a publication. No later than one week following the meeting, a written summary of these discussions is prepared by the student and submitted to the Committee Members and SSM, who will keep these records in the student’s file.

Oral Preliminary Exam / Dissertation Proposal Meeting

In the CBP Curriculum, the Oral Preliminary Exam is the defense of the dissertation proposal and is used to determine whether the student can reasonably be expected to be successful in achieving a PhD in the Curriculum. At the same time, the Oral Preliminary Exam provides a forum for the dissertation committee to approve the feasibility of the project.

The Oral Preliminary Exam consists of a written proposal, formatted in the style of a 6-8 page NIH/NRSA, NSF, or AHA fellowship grant that is presented and defended in an oral presentation to the Dissertation Committee. The Dissertation Committee will meet to hear the thesis proposal no later than the end of the Fall semester of Year 3. Changes to this timing must be pre-approved by the DGS and CBP Curriculum Executive Committee. The written proposal should be delivered to the committee members AT LEAST two weeks in advance of the meeting. The oral component of the exam occurs in the format of a Dissertation Committee Meeting and is run by the Chair of the Committee (who is not the thesis advisor). The student will present and defend the proposal, during which time Committee members (including the advisor) are expected to frequently question the student during the presentation. Questions will be specific to the proposal and they will also broadly test the student’s knowledge of key topics the committee expects the student to have mastered. Questions from the committee should not be answered by the advisor unless specifically addressed to him or her by a committee member.

To pass, the student is expected to excel in all aspects of the oral exam. The proposal should generally be of a quality that might reasonably be expected to be competitive for funding if it were submitted to an appropriate agency or funding source. In this regard, students will have already completed CBPH 706(856), which provides them with in-depth grant writing skills on the topic of their doctoral research. During the Oral component of the exam, students will be expected to demonstrate a broad knowledge of general principles of cell biology and physiology and demonstrate competent familiarity with the background literature of their specific field of study. The student is expected to convey the scientific importance of the thesis question and to understand and defend the rationale for the experimental approach that has been selected.
Students who fail the oral exam may take it a second time. A minimum of three months must separate the first and second attempts.
Students who fail the exam twice become ineligible for further graduate work. The Graduate School may permit a student a third and final opportunity to take the exam. Such requests are made at the discretion of the Director of Graduate Studies and the Cell Biology and Physiology Executive Committee after consultation with the advisor and dissertation committee.

Dissertation Defense

In the CBP Curriculum, the oral examination for the Dissertation defense will occur as formal seminar, open to the public, followed by an approximately 30-40 minute private discussion and examination of the work between the members of the Dissertation Committee and student.  However, the exact length of time is entirely up to the committee.

Research Day

Each year, the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology hosts an interdisciplinary research day to recognize and discuss the scientific advancements of all UNC investigators within this broad discipline, including graduate students enrolled in the CBP Curriculum. It is expected that each student will present a poster at Research Day every year. New students can present work from one of their first year rotations or present their tentative plans for their thesis project, with minimal data expected in the first year.


Students in the CBP Curriculum are expected to attend and participate in the Cell Biology and Physiology Department Seminar Series and the In-House FUSION seminar series. Students will be enrolled in CBPH 705/706 (855/856) each semester, for which their attendance and participation in seminars and dissertation defenses is graded on an H/P/L/F scale. Students who have 0 or 1 unexcused absence will receive an H. Two unexcused absences are allowed per semester for each seminar series, and will result in a grade of P. Three to four unexcused absences will result in a grade of L. Five or more unexcused absences will result in a failing grade. Per Graduate School policies, a grade of F or nine credits of L renders a student ineligible to continue their graduate studies.

Students are expected to act like responsible, professional members of the scientific community. This includes: 
- Arriving on time and sitting toward the front and middle of the lecture hall.
- Staying until the end of the seminar. The question and answer period is part of the seminar, even when the speaker goes over time. Conflicts, such as a class that starts right after the scheduled period for the seminar, need to be brought to the Director’s attention ahead of time.
- Paying attention to the talks and participating in the question and answer discussions.

Unacceptable behaviors include:
- Using electronic devices (computer, phone, tablet), except for taking notes.
- Reading papers or other materials.
- Talking (except to ask questions or to make brief comments about the material being presented)
Any student observed engaging in these behaviors will be counted as absent for that seminar.

Doctoral Dissertation Research

Each student is expected to conduct rigorous and cutting-edge primary research in their chosen field of interest, under the mentorship of their thesis advisor, and sometimes through collaboration with co-mentors or scientific collaborators. Students will receive credit for these activities each semester by enrolling in CBPH 994.

Grading for doctoral research will be done by the thesis advisor based on the following criteria:
High: exceptional productivity, new grants & papers
Pass: meets expectations of engaging productively in research
Low: does not meet expectations set forth by thesis advisor
Fail: does not participate in research activities of the laboratory

Justification and documentation of these grades will be provided through laboratory notebooks and other written or oral documents (papers, grant applications, scientific presentations), Annual Progress Reports (described below), summary reports from Dissertation Committee meetings and Annual Individual Development Plans (as required for NIH-funded students).

The Annual Progress Report

The Graduate School recommends that the Department complete an evaluation of each student annually. In the CBP Curriculum, students will participate in a yearly progress report and self-evaluation where they will summarize their academic and research accomplishments and outline their goals for the coming year. It is expected that this Annual Progress report will be developed in close consultation with the thesis advisor, and may incorporate elements of Individual Development Plan (IDPs), as required for students funded from federal research grants. Annual Progress Reports will be evaluated by the CBP Curriculum Executive Committee and DGS. The student will receive a letter summarizing this progress, indicating any upcoming academic requirements or milestones and, if necessary, provide advising for students who are not performing at a pace that would be consistent with their graduation by the end of their 5th year in graduate school.

A component of the Annual Progress Report will include a brief summary (prepared by the student) of the outcomes of their Dissertation Committee Meetings for the past year. These reports, which may include comments and feedback from Dissertation Committee members will be sent to the DGS and SSM and kept on file.