Jun 16, 2024  
Rensselaer Catalog 2022-2023 
Rensselaer Catalog 2022-2023 [Archived Catalog]

Biological Sciences

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Head: Susan P. Gilbert

Associate Department Head: George Makhatadze

Department Home Page: http://science.rpi.edu/biology 

Biology has been undergoing revolutionary changes in recent decades. Many problems once handled only descriptively are now analyzed at the molecular level using powerful combinations of biochemical, biophysical, genetic, molecular, structural, and computational tools. Rensselaer faculty have developed undergraduate and graduate programs to train students for the biological challenges of the future including new basic research paradigms, applied biomedical research, as well as challenges in healthcare, environmental sustainability, and resource management. The theory and practice of biological sciences today arises from a mechanistic understanding of life. Thus, biology is built on a foundation of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The undergraduate biology curriculum, therefore, trains students in the fundamentals of the life sciences, as well as the chemistry and physics underlying life processes. Upper division students choose areas of interest for more specialized study. This curriculum can be used to prepare students for professional training in research or medicine, applied biology, or industry. Programs of study in biology may also be combined with specific options in biochemistry, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, biophysics, biotechnology (genetic engineering), chemical engineering, computer science, environmental sciences, management, mathematics, microbiology, and technical communications.

Research and Innovation 

Biochemistry and Biophysics

The study of fundamental problems in modern biochemistry and molecular biochemistry employ a variety of advanced techniques. Faculty members work on many exciting problems that span the disciplines of cell biology, physiology, and structural biology. For example, research in these areas include investigations such as how muscle is organized to power locomotion and how variation between muscle fiber types is generated; structure/function relations of myosin and kinesin using molecular biology and genetic techniques; study of functional dynamics of proteins and protein design; the application of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study important problems in neuroscience and aging, e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common senile dementia, plus theoretical and experimental approaches to the study of protein-protein interactions and rational protein design using fluorescence microscopy and x-ray crystallography. 

Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology

Research in bioinformatics and molecular biology includes both computational work and applications using molecular genetic approaches. Algorithms are being developed for sequence alignment, structural bioinformatics, phylogenetic analysis and hypothesis driven molecular simulations. Massively parallel computer clusters are being used to carry out large scale molecular dynamics simulations, to mine large genomic data sets and to design novel proteins. Gene manipulations are used to engineer proteins for further biophysical characterization, leading to a better understanding of the forces that hold proteins together.

Microbiology and Ecology

In these programs, faculty and their students are conducting ecological, molecular, genetic, and computational studies. Both basic and applied research projects are available, sometimes within the same laboratory. Molecular studies include work on nitrogen-fixing symbiotic bacteria and bacteria living in the environment using recombinant DNA technology, and overlap in some cases with genetic studies of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Vibrio cholerae, the agent of the disease cholera, is indigenous in aquatic environments which serve as the reservoir for infection of humans. Studies are aimed at understanding the physiology and biochemistry that gives V. cholerae the ability to propagate through the external environment. Ecological research spans aquatic ecology and biogeochemistry to understand how natural and human impacts affect the structure and function of freshwater ecosystems. One goal is to forecast the future state of lake ecosystems in a regional to global context, with an emphasis on understanding how freshwater ecosystems are changing in response to changes in land use and climate. The Darrin Fresh Water Institute at Lake George is the center of these research activities, and a new research initiative, the Jefferson Project, in partnership with IBM and the FUND for Lake George is currently underway. The Jefferson Project seeks to merge traditional biological research with advanced cyber-infrastructure and high-end computing to understand how human activities are altering freshwater ecosystems as a model for studying lakes around the world.

Cell and Developmental Biology

Research in this area comprises in vivo studies in model organisms and studies on vertebrate cultured cells. Four undergraduate laboratory courses that teach basic research techniques in these areas are available, and students are encouraged to work in faculty research labs upon completion of one of these courses. These faculty labs utilize molecular and/or genetic approaches in their studies of many biological problems. Examples of research areas include the biochemical control of cytoskeletal organization, microtubule dynamics, cell polarity, and cell differentiation in epithelial and neuronal cells; signal transduction during normal development and during tumor cell migration; stem cell growth and regulation in the context of tissue engineering; the genetic control of tissue remodeling in normal developmental contexts; the molecular mechanisms controlling aging; and the regulation of behavior via the molecular circadian clock.

Interdisciplinary Programs

See also Biochemistry/Biophysics, and Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology, under the Interdisciplinary Programs and Research section.

Accelerated Programs

The Department of Biological Sciences offers highly motivated students the opportunity to combine undergraduate and graduate study to reduce the number of years spent in academic study. The Accelerated Physician Scientist Program (B.S.-M.D., 7 years) leads to a B.S. from Rensselaer and the M.D. degree from Albany Medical College. The Department also offers accelerated B.S.-Ph.D. and B.S.-M.S. Programs. The co-terminal B.S.-M.S. Program requires application by the end of the Junior Year, and students must have completed 90 credits and have a GPA of 3.3 to apply. To receive the M.S., students must complete an additional 30 credit hours of course work beyond that required for the B.S. and must meet all the requirements for the M.S. in Biology.

Undergraduate Programs

Undergraduate students may pursue either a baccalaureate program or an accelerated degree program. Both of these degree programs will receive further explanation within this catalog.

Outcomes of the Undergraduate Curriculum

As a result of completing this program students will:

  • demonstrate proficiency in the foundational topics of cell and molecular biology, genetics and evolution, biochemistry, and ecology and the environment.
  • demonstrate additional competency in advanced Biological Sciences topics relative to their academic interest.
  • be able to apply skills such as reading primary literature, developing a testable hypothesis, designing an experiment, collecting and analyzing data, and using statistical and quantitative methods.
  • be able to communicate effectively on scientific topics in both written and oral forms.
  • be able to apply knowledge and skills from across the curriculum to current problems in biological sciences to generate integrative papers, proposals, or other types of projects.

Graduate Programs

The research laboratories are pursuing projects in biochemistry and biophysics, bioinformatics and computational biology, structural biology, cancer and stem cell biology, cell signaling and cytoskeletal remodeling, yeast genetics, microbial ecology, geomicrobiology, synthetic biology, ecotoxicology, and ecosystem ecology. In addition, cooperative programs with other organizations provide a wider range of research possibilities. Rensselaer’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute at Lake George offers a program on lake ecosystem analysis involving field, laboratory, and computer analysis of biological, chemical, and physical data. An active graduate program in Biochemistry and Biophysics is jointly sponsored with the Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, and Biomedical and Chemical Engineering Departments.

Master’s Programs

Thirty credit hours of course work are necessary to complete the M.S. program. A minimum of 2 credits and a maximum of 9 credits must be in research. A total of 15 or more credits (including thesis or project) must be at 6000 level with the rest at 4000 or above, and 15 or more must have the BIOL or BCBP prefix. A thesis or project based on an original research project is required.

Outcomes of the Graduate Curriculum

Students who successfully complete this program will be able to:

  • explain general principles and concepts from a variety of sub-disciplines within the broader field of biology.
  • demonstrate extensive knowledge of a specialized field of biology and be able to answer challenging questions in that field.
  • critically analyze and interpret the scientific literature and scientific presentations.
  • discuss issues related to scientific ethics and scientific misconduct and apply ethical standards to their own research and/or professional conduct.
  • for students doing laboratory research—design, prepare, and execute experiments, using appropriate research techniques.
  • critically interpret research data and evaluate findings using appropriate statistical analyses.
  • effectively communicate their scientific research and findings in a variety of written and oral formats.

Doctoral Programs

Candidates for the Ph.D. must satisfy the requirements of the Graduate Program Committee (GPC) including passing the first year Core Course, which serves as a qualifying exam with a grade of B or better, and passing two 4-credit graduate elective courses (one of which must be at the 6000 level, and one of which must be in BIOL or BCBP). Students must also pass a candidacy exam which consists of a written and an oral portion, and must be taken by the end of the second year of full-time study. Degree candidates also must submit a dissertation based on an original research project, present their findings in a public seminar, and defend their work in an oral examination. Additionally, all doctoral candidates are required to participate in teaching for at least one semester under the supervision of a faculty member. Seventy-two credit hours are required for the Ph.D.

Outcomes of the Graduate Curriculum

Students who successfully complete this program will be able to:

  • explain general principles and concepts from a variety of sub-disciplines within the broader field of biology.
  • demonstrate expert knowledge of a specialized field of biology and be able to ask and answer challenging questions in that field.
  • critically analyze and interpret the scientific literature and scientific presentations.
  • independently design, prepare, and execute experiments, using appropriate research techniques.
  • critically interpret research data and evaluate findings using appropriate statistical analyses.
  • independently design and execute a research strategy aimed towards answering a pressing scientific question in the field.
  • effectively communicate their scientific research and findings in a variety of written and oral formats, including the ability to prepare a manuscript of original research for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
  • discuss issues related to scientific ethics and scientific misconduct and apply ethical standards to their research and professional conduct.

Minor Programs

The Department of Biological Sciences offers a minor in Biology. Biology and BCBP majors may elect to complete minors in Ecology, Lighting, or other disciplipines. 

Course Descriptions

Courses directly related to all Biology curricula are described in the Course Description section of this catalog under the department code BIOL or BCBP.

Faculty * 


Barquera, B.—Ph.D. (National Autonomous University of Mexico); bioenergetics of Vibrio cholerae.

Bystroff, C.—Ph.D. (University of California, San Diego); bioinformatics, computational biology, and protein design.

Dordick, J.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); biochemical engineering, enzyme technology, bioseparations.

Gilbert, S.P.—Ph.D. (Dartmouth College); structure and mechanisms of microtubule-based molecular motors involved in cell motility and microtubule dynamics.

Gross, R.—Ph.D. (Polytechnic University); biocatalysis and metabolic engineering.

Figueiro, M. G.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute); photobiology research, lighting applications, circadian phototransduction, effects of light on sleep.

Koffas, M.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); metabolic engineering, synthetic biology, industrial microbiology, natural products. 

Lindhardt, R.—Ph.D. (The John Hopkins University); medicinal chemistry and biocatalysis, carbohydrate chemistry.

Makhatadze, G.—Ph.D. (Moscow Physico-Technical Institute;) experimental and computational design of thermostable proteins, thermodynamics of protein-ligand interactions.

Nierzwicki-Bauer, S.A.—Ph.D. (University of New Hampshire); plant molecular biology, subsurface microbiology.

Relyea, R.—Ph.D. (University of Michigan); aquatic ecology, evolution, animal behavior, and ecotoxicology.

Royer, C.—Ph.D. (University of Illinois at U-C); protein interactions in vitro and in live cells, regulation of gene expression, advanced microscopy, protein folding, high pressure.

Swank, D.—Ph.D. (University of Pennsylvania); muscle physiology and motor protein biophysics.

Associate Professors

Collins, C.—Ph.D. (California Institute of Technology); synthetic biology, biochemical engineering, microbial communities, human microbiome, protein engineering directed evolution, biofilms.

Hanna, M.H.—Ph.D. (University of Illinois); directed evolution of proteins, scientific teaching.

Ligon, L.A.—Ph.D. (University of Virginia); cell biology, cancer cell biology, cytoskeleton/microtubules.

Wan, L.—Ph.D. (Columbia University) developing novel strategies for tissue regeneration/repair, establishing innovative organ-on-a-chip devices for disease diagnosis and drug screening.

Wang, C.—Ph.D. (Cornell University): NMR spectroscopy, neuroscience and aging, Alzheimer’s disease.

Assistant Professors

Bentley, M.—Ph.D. (University of Montana); cell biology, neuroscience, vesicle transport, motor proteins.

Forth, S.—Ph.D. (Cornell); biophysics, mechanics of cell division, single molecule methods.

Hurley, J.M.—Ph.D. (Rutgers University/UMDNJ); molecular genetics, protein biochemistry and systems biology of circadian rhythms.

Rogers, K.—Ph.D. (Washington University); geomicrobiology, astrobiology, geochemistry.

Rose, K.—Ph.D. (Miami University); aquatic ecology and biogeochemistry, effects of human activity on structure and function of fresh water ecosystems.

Senior Lecturers

Bonocora, R.—Ph.D. (University of Albany, New York).

Christian, L.—Ph.D. (University of Texas, Austin).


Crone, D.—Ph.D. (Duke University).

Farrell, J.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Fraser, K.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Lister, B.—Ph.D. (Princeton University).

Ramanath, S.—Ph.D. (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Rutledge, E.—Ph.D. (Albany Medical College).

Professors Emeritus

Boylen, C.W.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin); microbial ecology, physiological effects of starvation on microorganisms.

Diwan, J.J.—Ph.D. (University of Illinois); cell physiology, bioenergetics.

Ehrlich, H.L.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin); microbial ecology, biotransformation and biodegradation of natural polymers and pesticides, biotechnology.

Koretz, J.—PhD. (University of Wisconsin); structural biophysics of protein aggregation, computer modeling.

McDaniel, C.N.—Ph.D. (Wesleyan University); plant development and cell culture.

Parsons, R.H.—Ph.D. (Oregon State University); cellular physiology, epithelial transport.

*Departmental faculty listings are accurate as of the date generated for inclusion in this catalog. For the most up-to-date listing of faculty positions, including end-of-year promotions, please refer to the Faculty Roster section of this catalog, which is current as of the May 2019 Board of Trustees meeting.

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