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Welcome to the Watson School of Biological Sciences


Message from Dean Alexander Gann

A Unique And Exciting Doctoral Program

Alexander Gann

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory provides a uniquely stimulating environment for a doctoral program in the biological sciences. It is an international community of science where students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty work side-by-side. The hierarchical structure of the Laboratory is flat and the atmosphere intimate and highly interactive. Our program is designed for students with exceptional ability and a deep commitment to their graduate education. Its curriculum is designed to train confident, self-reliant students to become scholars and to acquire the knowledge their research and future careers demand.

Our innovative doctoral program includes the following key features:

  • Approximately four to five years from matriculation to Ph.D.
  • A broad representation of the biological sciences
  • A first year with course work and laboratory rotations in separate phases
  • Emphasis on the principles of scientific reasoning and logic as well as the importance of ethics and effective communication
  • Continued advanced course instruction throughout the graduate curriculum
  • Extensive mentoring and support in large part through our “two-tier” mentoring program

The Watson School of Biological Sciences opened its doors in 1999. Our first class of six students arrived with a sense of adventure and a trust in a faculty that would follow Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s long tradition of non-compromising excellence. In a very short time the WSBS has graduated over 90 PhD students and become a leading graduate program in the biological sciences, one whose fresh approach is quickly being emulated by other PhD programs across the country.

The spectacular track record of our students and alumni is a testament to the success of our remarkable program. They are publishing well-cited papers in leading journals, have received highly competitive fellowships and awards. Several have started tenure-track faculty positions within four years of graduating, which is much faster than is typical for Ph.D. programs – an excellent indicator of the School’s success in preparing highly qualified and competitive scientific leaders. Our aim remains to produce the next generation of leaders in science and society, and we invite you to join us.

Message from CSHL President Bruce Stillman

A Tradition of Excellence

Bruce Stillman, Ph.D.

Since its inception in 1890, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has been a leading center worldwide for research and education. Its Dolan DNA Learning Center, established in 1988, educates primary and secondary school students and provides innovative programs for science teachers. The Undergraduate Research Program, begun in 1959, hosts exceptional undergraduates from around the world for a 10 week research experience each summer. The Laboratory’s over 30-year collaboration with Stony Brook University has attracted many of the University’s graduate students to Cold Spring Harbor for research training. And each year, the Laboratory offers courses at the postgraduate level, hosts international conferences, and organizes small conferences at the nearby Banbury Conference Center. More than 8000 scientists visit our campus each year to participate in these programs. The most recent addition to fulfill our educational mission is the Watson School of Biological Sciences, an innovative graduate program that was established in 1998 and has already made a great difference in how students are trained.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has long been recognized for its excellence in basic research in the biological and biomedical sciences. The current research era began in 1968 when Nobel laureate James D. Watson became the director of the Laboratory and expanded its research activities to focus on cancer and molecular biology in eukaryotes. During the past 35 years, Laboratory scientists have made many fundamental advances in molecular biology. The Watson School of Biological Sciences, now ten years old, is invigorated by the Laboratory’s current fields of research expertise—genetics; molecular, cellular, and structural biology; neuroscience; cancer; plant biology; and bioinformatics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is a marvelous place to enjoy and learn science. I came here 30 years ago, attracted by the rich achievements of the past, the exciting science, the lively people, and the enormous beauty of the campus. Here, graduate students can mingle with the world’s top scientists at meetings and courses. They might find themselves working in laboratories where Barbara McClintock revolutionized genetics, where Al Hershey provided important evidence that DNA is the molecule of heredity, where Max Delbrück and Salvador Luria taught phage genetics and ushered in the era of molecular biology, or where split genes were discovered.

The diversified components of the Laboratory are incorporated into the design of our innovative graduate program. By taking advantage of its extensive resources, the Watson School of Biological Sciences offers a novel curriculum that will challenge its graduate students—biologists of the future—to become leaders in science and in society.

Message from Chancellor Emeritus Dr. James Watson

Biology in the New Millennium

James Watson

In 1948, when I first spent a summer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the big question to be solved was the nature of the gene and how it functioned. At that time, many scientists believed it would take many decades to come to grips with the essence of the gene at the chemical level. But the double helix with all of its molecular splendor and simplicity suddenly emerged in the spring of 1953. The search for the molecular identity of the gene was over.

Molecular biology soon went beyond the structure of DNA to the genetic code, recombinant DNA technology, DNA sequencing, RNA splicing, oncogenes, tumor-suppressor genes, signal transduction pathways, and the molecular dissection of the cell cycle. The human genome is now complete as are those of the sea urchin, the honey bee, the mouse, the rat, the chimpanzee, the dog, and the chicken. Even earlier the complete DNA sequences of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans, the fly Drosophila melanogaster, and the plant Arabidopsis thaliana were worked out. By now establishing the DNA sequence for any organism – and the pinpointing of most of its genes and their chromosomal locations – is an achievable, predictable task limited only by the monies at our disposal.

Now we need to understand how these instruction books work. In particular, we need to find out how the just less than 25,000 known human genes are used.Though many scientists at the beginning of the 20th century saw the need for vital forces outside the laws of physics and chemistry, virtually all biologists now believe that not only development but human behavior and personality as well as, say, recognizing a familiar face can all eventually be explained in terms of molecular interactions and cell functioning.

Much, much important science remains to be done. Understanding how variations in our individual genetic instruction books make each human so unique will go on long into this new century and the ones that follow. My own DNA instructions have just been worked out and are on the Web for all to see. Soon the cost of sequencing a human genome may be no more than the purchase price of a Chevrolet. Vastly speeding up these efforts are new high-throughput, low cost ways of sequencing DNA.

Already pharmaceutical and biotech companies are using genomic knowledge in ever-expanding practical ways. Here we will continue to search for the gene changes that cause diseases like cancer, autism, schizophrenia, and bipolar disease. Our main goal, however, will long remain understanding how key organisms function when all their genes provide the right instructions.

Nothing is more important than understanding life!