The Humangenetics Program

Academic Atmosphere

Before visiting JHU, students tend to believe that Hopkins has a ruthless, aggressive academic environment. Similarly, many believe the faculty is unapproachable by students, avoid collaboration and don’t talk about their research. After their visit to Hopkins, however, most find this notion couldn’t be further from the truth.

The labs at Hopkins collaborate with each other and with labs outside of the university, share and trade reagents and skills, exchange protocols, and seek ideas from other faculty members. They even help one another review their grant applications prior to submission.

Typical HG research lab

The faculty are very friendly and willing to talk to students about research. To further facilitate communication, students and faculty share their research regularly at the monthly student research supper talks as well as at the weekly Institute of Genetic Medicine (IGM) seminars, the fall Human Genetics retreat, and during the spring IGM retreat.

Every lab at Hopkins has a different personality. All of them are a different size and are run in different ways. Individual labs may be run by Ph.Ds, M.D.s or M.D./Ph.Ds, with research interests ranging from clinically-oriented topics to basic science. Each lab has its own mix of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, medical fellows, technicians and undergraduates as well as a distinct lab meeting schedule and format. Every department may have its own series of journal clubs and seminars separate from the IGM.


The Broadway Research Building

Completed in 2003, the ten-story Broadway Research Building (BRB) is home to the Human Genetics program. In the building's 372,000 square feet are six floors of research labs, a large, comprehensive animal facility, office space, a library, conference rooms and more. The BRB houses the High Throughput (HiT) Biology Center, which comprises Microarray, Proteomics, Sequencing and Chemical Core facilities, available to scientists across the university.

A cafe and connecting pavilion links the third floor of BRB to the Ross Research Building, parking and the Pre-Clinical Teaching Building where classes are held.

Class Experience

The Human Genetics program requires students to take two years of classes (for a detailed course list, check here). The hallmark of the program is that students take several courses from the first- and second-year medical school curricula, including Molecules and Cells, Organ Histology, Pathology, and Pathophysiology. These courses are taken in addition to the core graduate biomedical curriculum required by most Ph.D programs in the School of Medicine. Many students find the medical courses to be very useful at providing them with the foundation to conduct applied research, as the courses cover the spectrum of human disease and help to familiarize students with the medical vocabulary. Other students find the medical courses more tedious than helpful, especially students whose research interests lean towards basic research or statistical genetics. Regardless of how applicable they are to one's research, most students would agree that the medical courses are well organized and well taught.

The Greenhouse Cafe near the lecture halls

The graduate school courses cover genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry and cell biology in great depth, but build on typical undergraduate knowledge. Since most programs at the School of Medicine require their students to take some or all of these courses, class size tends to be about 100 students. Students usually find the faculty to be very approachable, however, and can meet with faculty one-on-one to have their questions answered. Additionally, a number of electives are offered each year, and this is another way for students to have greater interaction with faculty as these courses have a smaller enrollment. Elective classes such as The Science of The Individual typically have an enrollment of less than 12 people.

Laboratory Rotations

In addition to taking the required courses, students also rotate through three labs during the first year before choosing their thesis lab. Rotations last three months, and students may choose a thesis lab after only one or two rotations if they wish. To help new students get to know the faculty and their current research interests, faculty members give short lunchtime talks to the first-year class during the first few weeks of the year.

Although many students believe they have a good idea of what they would like to study before they arrive, most students become interested in new areas as well after hearing these presentations. It is extremely important to keep an open mind when considering the selection of rotation labs. Choosing a rotation in a lab that one had never previously considered – sometimes even in an area of science unknown to them before arriving at Hopkins – is a common experience.

The Comprehensive Exam

Once students complete all of their courses, they must also pass a comprehensive oral exam before becoming a full Ph.D candidate. A comprehensive exam is intended to coalesce all the knowledge of the first two years of the Human Genetics experience, while asking the student to demonstrate their ability to present their research direction and think on their feet. This exam takes place in May or June of the student's second year in the program, and lasts about two hours.

The exam begins with a brief presentation by the student about their research interests, and is followed by questions from the five faculty members on the student's exam committee. The student does not find out who comprises the exam committee until the day of the exam, and questions cover material from all courses but with an emphasis on genetics. Additionally, at the discretion of the exam committee, some questions may cover topics not discussed in class but which the student should be familiar with by reading journals and textbooks in molecular biology and human genetics.

The time students spend to prepare for the exam varies, but students usually takes a few weeks to a month away from lab work to study exclusively for the exam. Studying is done both alone and in groups, with reviews and quizzes from older students and practice sessions with faculty.

Although it can be an intimidating experience, students usually find the exam to be easier than they expect, and find the committee members generally willing to offer assistance if the student gets stuck on a question.

Thesis Committee

Following the completion of the comprehensive exam, the student will select 4 faculty members, in addition to their advisor, to be on their thesis committee. Selected for their relevance to the direction of the student’s research, this group will offer their expertise and advice as the student’s project progresses. Thesis committee meetings are typically held every 8-12 months and serve to update the group on the student’s progress and provide future directions for research. If the direction of the student’s research changes, committee members may be changed to reflect the new research interests.

Thesis Defense

Students spend a few years (typically 3-4) conducting their research. Once the student’s thesis committee agrees that the student has completed enough work to graduate, the student writes a thesis and presents the work at an hour-long seminar. The rule of thumb is that students should have the equivalent of two first-author publications worth of research (the number of actually accepted publications is not important) before the committee will allow the student to graduate. After the thesis presentation, the student will field a handful of questions from their thesis committee and/or audience members.

Teaching Responsibilities

During the third year, each Human Genetics student serves as a Teaching Assistant for a class in the School of Medicine. Students can choose from a variety of graduate and medical courses to fulfill this requirement. The expectations for each course are different, ranging from grading problem sets and exams and holding review sessions to leading laboratory and discussion sections. Students have a fair amount of flexibility in deciding what kind of TA experience they want and can consider the subject and time commitment involved in each course before making a decision.

Departmental Activities

Human Genetics students are invited to participate in a wide range of departmental events which help students get to know the rest of the department, become comfortable making scientific presentations, meet cutting edge scientists from other institutions and keep up on current research. Some of these opportunities include:

  • Bar Harbor course - Following the completion of the first year of the Human Genetics program, all students attend a two-week course, The Annual Short Course in Medical and Experimental Mammalian Genetics, at the Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine. The course is organized by Human Genetics faculty at Hopkins and researchers at Jackson, and features lectures on medical and mammalian genetics as well as research presentations given by prominent geneticists and other leading scientists.
    With enrollment of about 150 people, the course is attended by Hopkins students and other students and medical fellows from around the world, with plenty of interaction between students and with speakers. The beautiful surroundings, wonderful local food, the town of Bar Harbor and hiking through Acadia National Park make this unique experience the highlight of the first year, and possibly the program, for many students.
  • Journal Club - Every Wednesday at noon a faculty member, post-doctoral fellow or graduate student (3rd year and beyond) leads a discussion about a recent journal article of their choice.
  • IGM Seminars - Every Thursday, faculty from outside Hopkins are invited to present their work to the department.Students in the program have the opportunity to have lunch before the seminar with the speaker, allowing them to ask questions about speaker's research and make valuable contacts.
  • Barton Childs and Victor McKusick Lectures - Each year, two prominent researchers are invited to give independent lectures in honor of Dr. Barton Childs and Dr. Victor McKusick, professors emeritus of our program. In addition to hearing the lectures themselves, students have a chance to meet the lecturers informally at receptions and, with the Barton Childs lecturer, at a student dinner.
    Each year a committee of Human Genetics students decides who they will invite to give the Barton Childs lecture. Recent lecturers include Albert Laslo-Barabasi, Francis Collins, Rudolf Jaenisch, Mary-Claire King, and Charles Scriver (lecture video available here).
  • Gripe Session - At the end of every academic year students are given the chance to voice their concerns about aspects of the program and make suggestions for improvement.
How to spend some free time in Bar Harbor An HG Journal Club presentation HG students eating with an invited speaker

Student Stipend

The stipend for the 2007-2008 academic year is $26,200. Students are given a raise each year, roughly based on increases in cost of living, amounting to an annual increase of a few hundred dollars. When surveyed about the cost of living in the Baltimore area, responses varied from "I have no problem living on the stipend" to "I regularly spend more than I make." It all depends on your standard of living, how often you want to go out during the week and if you have a roommate or significant other to help pay the rent.

In general, rent in Baltimore is much cheaper than in larger cities like San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, or New York, but it's also harder to get around without a car, so some of the money saved on rent will likely go toward gasoline and car insurance payments. Additionally, with the help of the Financial Aid Office, some students take out deferrable student loans to subsidize their income.

Medical Coverage and Benefits

As a graduate student, you are entitled to very comprehensive medical coverage. For services by Hopkins doctors (general and referral services), there is no fee for any services (including lab work) they provide. This coverage includes up to 30 days of hospitalization at 100% reimbursement (generally you will not see any bills), followed by 80% reimbursement for services beyond the initial 30 days. The University Health Services Center is located on the hospital campus in room 136 of the Carnegie Building. Phone: 410-955-3250.

If you need emergency services, there are some procedures to follow to make sure you receive full coverage, but they are straightforward. Otherwise emergency care is reimbursed at 80%.

Eye care is included in the services provided by the student health plan and includes one eye exam per year at The Wilmer Eye Institute (Phone: 410-955-5080), located in the hospital, and discounts (generally 30% off) on glasses are offered through the Wilmer Vision Center (several locations).

Dental coverage is also included at a reimbursement level of 80% to a maximum of $1500 per year. This service is provided by BlueCross BlueShield (CareFirst). You are able to use your preferred dentist if they support this type of coverage (thousands of dentists do), you can use the Johns Hopkins full-service clinic (Blalock 2, Phone: 410-955-6662), or you can find a Baltimore-area dentist that suits your needs.

Workout and Athletic Facilities

The hospital campus is served primarily by the Cooley Athletic Center. This is a large complex with basketball and tennis courts, pool, weights, indoor racket courts, aerobics and jogging track. There are also several intramural sports leagues.

The Bloomberg School of Public Health also has an athletic center with nice cardio equipment and better views, but not much else for serious workouts. Its hours are more restrictive, but both facilities vary when they're open, depending on the season. Both the Cooley and Bloomberg facilities are free to graduate students.

Those living north of the hospital in Charles Village or surrounding areas may find it convenient to use The O'Connor Center athletic facilities at the Hopkins Homewood campus. This is a large, new athletic center with extensive equipment and facilities that include a rock climbing wall. Graduate students in the School of Medicine are charged $10 per month for use of this facility. There are also several intramural sports leagues organized through this facility. If you are interested in athletic classes (Yoga, Aerobics, Lifting, etc.), a pass is available for $40 per semester.

Extra-curricular Classes

In case you don’t get enough time in lectures, there are hundreds of free classes at your disposal, whether you want to learn piano or astronomy or epidemiology, from places like the Bloomberg School of Public Health, the Johns Hopkins Homewood Campus, and the Peabody Institute. To take classes outside of the School of Medicine (SOM), a cross registration form must be completed and submitted to the SOM registrar. SOM are allowed to take any course offered at the Peabody with the exception of minor lessons (unless paid out of pocket).