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Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry

Students entering the Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry (MIB) Track receive state-of-the-art training designed to prepare them for a research-focused career in academia, industry, or governmental agencies. The goals of the MIB track and its faculty are to ensure students have the necessary skills to become independent scientists and to successfully compete at the next level of their career development. To achieve these goals it is essential that students choose a dissertation project that ignites their passion for research. For those students interested in host-pathogen interactions, mechanisms governing innate and acquired immune responses, vaccine and therapeutic vector development, utilization of genomics/bioinformatics to study human disease, and research into the genetics, biochemical and/or cell biological mechanisms of eukaryotic or prokaryotic organisms, the MIB track has 35 faculty with active research programs spanning a wide range of research interests, including:

  • molecular and cellular bases for bacterial and viral infectious diseases
  • mechanisms of normal and abnormal immune function
  • chronic inflammatory and immune-mediated diseases in humans
  • animal models of human diseases
  • vaccine design and development
  • cancer gene therapy
  • genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, and methods to study large biological data sets
  • mechanisms of protein localization and transport
  • cell signaling
  • genetics, biochemistry, and cell biology of transcriptional regulation in prokaryotes and eukaryotes
  • bioinformatics, quantitative trait mapping, and data mining methodologies

Faculty in the MIB track include investigators from the Departments of Molecular Sciences, Clinical Pharmacy, Pediatrics, and Medicine at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center, as well as scientists from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the Veteran's Administration Hospital and Research Center in Memphis. In addition, research programs utilizing the newly opened Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) provide students with an opportunity for training in biocontainment procedures used to study biosafety level-3 (BSL-3) pathogens.

Department of Microbiology, Immunology and BiochemistryRegional Biocontainment Laboratory


Microbiology, Immunology, and Biochemistry
Track Director:
David R. Nelson, PhD
101B Molecular Sciences Building
Memphis, TN 38163

Program Resources


Students in the Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry (MIB) track are required to complete a minimum of 9 credit hours of a core curriculum consisting of courses that explore emerging concepts in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry. In addition, students are required to complete a Biostats course, an Ethics course and a minimum of 6 credit hours of electives. Selection of electives will depend on the research interests of the students, and typically are chosen in consultation with the student's faculty mentor.

In addition to the core and elective courses, 1st year students will participate in a seminar course where they read and discuss a paper provided by a department-invited seminar speaker and then meet with the speaker as a group for one hour prior to attending the seminar. Students in the MIB track also participate in a literature-based journal club where 2nd year students and above present a recent research paper to fellow students and faculty. Second year students also have an opportunity to obtain teaching experience as a Teaching Assistants in two different laboratory sessions for the second-year medical students taking the Medical Microbiology course.

Core Curriculum

  • IP 805 - Essentials of Molecular Biology - (3)
  • IP 806 - Biochemistry - (3)
  • IP 841 - Essentials of Cell Biology - (3)


  • MSCI 812 - Physical Biochemistry and Applications in Structural Biology - (3)
  • MSCI 814 - Bioinformatics-I - (2)
  • MSCI 815 - Bioinformatics-II - (1)
  • MSCI 861 - Cellular Signaling - (3)
  • MSCI 928 - Principles of Mass Spectrometry - (3)
  • MSCI 930 Cellular and Molecular Basis of Microbial Pathogenesis - (3)
  • MSCI 931 - Immunity and Inflammation - (3)
  • MSCI 934 Techniques I -Biochemical and Cellular Methods (2)
  • MSCI 935 Techniques II - Molecular Biology (2)

Laboratory Rotations

Students in the MIB track will participate in a minimum of 2, or up to a maximum of 6 lab rotations, each lasting 6-weeks. During the rotations students will work in the labs of individual faculty who will be taking students that particular year. To accept a student into their lab, faculty members must have sufficient funding to support that student during their Ph.D. training. Lab rotations provide students with an opportunity to experience first-hand the environment of the lab, to interact with other individuals in the lab, and to evaluate potential projects that are available. Students typically chose their faculty mentors in the spring of their first year, upon mutual agreement with the faculty member. This allows students to begin developing their dissertation project and working in the lab full-time before the end of their first year.

Admission-to-Candidacy Exam

During the fall of their second year, students will form their dissertation committee and at the end of the spring semester of their second year students will take the Admission to Candidacy exam (or Qualifying Exam). This exam, which determines whether a student is sufficiently prepared to pursue a Ph.D. in the IBS program, consists of two parts. First, students will write an NIH F31-style proposal on their dissertation project and submit the proposal to their dissertation committee. If acceptable, the student then meets with the committee in a closed-door session where the committee members assess the student's competency on fundamental aspects of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry. Once the student has demonstrated proficiency in the core topic areas, the committee will expand the questioning to topics covered in the proposal. The committee then votes either pass or fail. If a student does not pass the first time, they may have an opportunity to retake the exam before the beginning of the fall semester of their third year. Successful completion of the exam results in admission of the student to candidacy to pursue a Ph.D.

Sample curriculum

Year 1

Fall Semester

  • Biochemistry
  • Essentials of Cell Biology
  • Elective #1
  • MIB Journal Club
  • Lab rotation #1

Spring Semester

  • Essentials of Molecular Biology
  • Elective #2
  • MIB Journal Club
  • Lab rotations
  • Select faculty mentor

Year 2

Fall Semester

  • Elective #3 (if needed)
  • Dissertation research
  • MIB Journal Club
  • Assemble dissertation committee

Spring Semester

  • Dissertation research
  • Take admission-to-candidacy exam
  • MIB Journal Club

Year 3

  • Dissertation research
  • MIB Journal Club

Year 4 and Beyond

  • Students will defend their dissertation before their faculty committee
Student Perspectives

Elizabeth Berkow, MS, MLS (ASCP)

Prior to returning to graduate school to complete a PhD in molecular sciences, I was a clinical microbiologist for a reference pathology laboratory and spent each day carefully identifying microorganisms, interpreting diagnostic lab results, and performing susceptibility testing. I developed a deep appreciation for the work involved in generating results at the laboratory bench which translated to therapeutic success for the patient. For an inherent problem-solver, the microbiology lab is a perfect place to work – there is always a difficult-to-identify bacterium or a Plasmodium to speciate or a quality control isolate which is not behaving as expected. I found all such tasks to be challenging, gratifying, and above all exciting. In my experience, I also developed an awareness of areas within the microbiology laboratory which invite innovation and technological advancement. I would like to be involved in the selection, implementation, and validation of novel molecular technologies in large scale in the microbiology laboratory, as this has the potential to translate to faster and more appropriately targeted therapy. In order to achieve that goal, I set my sights on obtaining a PhD in my field and The University of Tennessee Health Science Center was a logical choice for me. As a native Memphian, I knew the university's reputation for academic excellence and was excited to be able to remain in a city that I love. My current research here at UTHSC perfectly aligns with my future goals. I am investigating the characterization of molecular markers of antifungal drug resistance in Candida species which could be used in the clinical laboratory to predict treatment failure or success in the future.

I am now a fifth year PhD candidate and my professional goal is to become an ABMM-certified Clinical Laboratory Director. My education at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center has provided a unique set of skills and opportunities which will translate in making me a well-trained medical microbiologist. I have made meaningful contacts and collaborated with faculty on our campus, the Knoxville campus, as well as at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. I have attended numerous conferences across the US and even attended 2 international conferences. Most importantly, I have found the atmosphere at UTHSC to be focused on true mentorship; as a graduate student here, I am encouraged to be a positive contributor to the field, rather than an employee. Also, there are numerous opportunities to showcase my current work and I feel challenged and supported in my endeavors.

Felicia Emery

Four to six years is a long time to spend in one place – graduate school can be rough sometimes, but it's also a lot of fun. And in the end, finding a place where you can grow and be happy for the next however many years is really the most important thing. I decided to come to UTHSC for several reasons, but mostly because it just felt right – and as a 5th year Microbial Pathogenesis, Immunology and Inflammation graduate student, it still does.

Reasons that influenced my decision to attend UTHSC and study in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry included the quality of the research and the potential resources that were available to me as a student. I am currently studying the genetics of differential susceptibility to pneumonic Burkholderia pseudomallei infection using a murine "BXD" strain collection coupled with in silico resources known as GeneNetwork to perform quantitative trait loci mapping. I never imagined that I would ever work with a Tier 1 select agent, but now, this is a reality and because of this I have been afforded the opportunity to work in a state-of-the-art Regional Biocontainment Facility, which is only one of 12 in the country. I have been able to gain valuable experience working under BSL-3 conditions, something I would have not been able to achieve at most institutions.

Another factor that drew me here is their focus on an interdisciplinary approach that coincides with the demands of modern biological research. For graduate students here at UTHSC, departmental lines do not present any hindrance to working with professors outside your selected track. In this sense, one does not feel "stuck" in one department or another but rather part of a collective, collaborative group of academics. I personally work with professors in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology while my advisor is in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry.

The support and encouragement I receive from my advisor, peers and professors, makes the pursuit of my Ph.D. one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. UTHSC and the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry is truly a scientific community that fosters an environment filled with excitement, high intellect and success.

How to Apply

You can apply via our online application. Most students apply before December, and those applying before December 1 will be given priority status. The final application deadline is March 1. Applications are reviewed as received, and our top domestic candidates are supported for travel to campus for interviews beginning in January.

It is important that you complete the application and send all required materials as soon as possible. You can apply online, and it is free and easy. Most of the options on the Application Checklist are self-explanatory, but under Planned Course of Study, choose the Biomedical Sciences-PhD option. Then, select up to three tracks of interest using the drop down menus associated with the concentration options. We will assume that the first concentration you select is your preferred research track.

General requirements are a bachelor's degree with a grade-point average of at least 3.0 from an accredited college or university, previous research experience, a personal statement, and three letters of recommendation. The GRE is optional. For students whose native language is not English, a score of at least 79 on the TOEFL or 6.5 on the IELTS is required.

US Applicants

For US applicants, official transcripts and official test scores should be sent directly from the contributing source and not by the student. Three recommendation letters are required. Names and contact information of three referees will be entered on the application and the system will contact them with instruction on how to submit their recommendation.

Non-US Applicants

For non-US applicants, official test scores should be sent directly from the contributing source and not by the student. Official transcripts and three recommendation letters are required.

Transcripts from any non-US institution must be verified and certified to generate a grade point average (GPA) based on a 4.0 scale. Verification must be completed before matriculation. Service agencies include, but are not limited to, Educational Credit Evaluation (ECE) and World Education Services (WES). A document-by-document certification is not acceptable. These agencies charge a fee for their service.

Oct 31, 2023