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Graduate program fosters an interdisciplinary spirit and a jump in applications

How does an academic program go from newborn to campus fixture in only five years?

Yale’s Combined Program in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences (BBS) has accomplished this feat by uniting 11 academic departments and fostering a sense of community that’s evident from the lab bench to the pages of its irreverent student magazine.

Founded on the principle that research is inherently interdisciplinary and no longer conforms to traditional departmental boundaries, BBS provides graduate students with flexible opportunities to study with more than 200 faculty members from across Yale. “There’s a lot more interchange than there ever was before BBS,’’ said Lynn Cooley, Ph.D., the program’s new director and a professor of genetics and cell biology. “There’s more communication, more coordination, and fewer territorial disputes over resources.”

The program is divided into eight interest-based tracks: Biological Sciences, Cell Biology and Molecular Physiology, Genetics and Development, Immunology, Microbiology, Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, Neuroscience, and Pharmacological Sciences and Molecular Medicine, each of which draws its faculty from multiple departments. While students affiliate with a single track, they have almost unlimited research opportunities at Yale, including access to faculty in departments such as Computer Science, Engineering, Psychology and Chemistry. BBS students “can rotate anywhere and settle into the lab that’s most suited to their interests,’’ said BBS Administrative Director John Alvaro, Ph.D. “They have a nice home base and yet they have access to all the labs on campus.”

BBS, which streamlined the admissions process and administrative structure for graduate students in the life sciences, has also succeeded in recruiting students. Applications jumped nearly 20 percent in the past year.

One cornerstone of the program’s strength has been its partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), which helped establish BBS with a multimillion-dollar grant in 1996. BMS funds graduate study and provides opportunities for students to gain experience in pharmaceutical research at its Wallingford, Conn., facility.

One of Cooley’s priorities is to expand partnerships between life sciences companies and BBS. She also plans to embark on a major fund-raising effort to establish an endowment supporting graduate education. And she wants to continue to encourage collaborative research in emerging disciplines such as bioinformatics. The BBS program, says Cooley, provides “a way for the campus to nurture new emerging scientific disciplines.”