Graduate Education

AFCRI is a highly visible and productive training environment for students from multiple graduate programs at the Perelman School of Medicine. AFCRI Faculty contribute significantly to graduate-level education in the Perelman School of Medicine, through successfully recruiting students to their labs, and guiding them through all phases of training, from course work and laboratory rotations to full-time thesis research. AFCRI activities are distributed across a number of independent graduate groups overseen by the Biomedical Graduate Studies (BGS) office, of which the Cancer Biology (CB) program has been the major focus.

Cancer Biology (CB) Program

Several AFCRI Faculty have directed the CB program of the Cell and Molecular Biology (CAMB) graduate group from 1999-present. Dr. Brian Keith served as Chair of CB from 1999-2005 and 2006-2008, with Dr. Jim Alwine directing the program from 2005-2006. Dr. Craig Bassing initiated a three-year term as CB Chair starting in July 2014. Other AFCRI faculty members have fulfilled critical administrative roles in the CB program, including student advising (Drs. Craig Bassing and Xiaolu Yang), preliminary exam preparation (Drs. Andy Minn and Eric Witze), admissions (Drs. Katy Wellen, David Feldser, Xianxin Hua, and Luca Busino), curriculum (Drs. Andy Minn and Luca Busino), the Preceptor program (Drs. Katy Wellen, Celeste Simon, David Feldser and Luca Busino), and the Friday afternoon student/postdoc seminar series (Dr. Eric J. Brown).

Cancer Biology Courses

AFCRI faculty direct a broad array of cancer-related seminar courses available to CB students in their second year. For example, Drs. Xianxin Hua and Warren Pear serve as instructors of CAMB 632 (Signal Transduction in Cancer), which examines how various signal transduction mechanisms influence cell functions including replication, growth, transcription, translation and intracellular trafficking. Drs. Sandra Ryeom and David Feldser co-direct CAMB 701 (Tumor Microenvironment). The course will cover the cross-talk between the main players (tumor cells, stroma, vasculature, inflammatory and immune cells)  of the local tumor microenvironment field as well as the systemic response/impact of primary tumors, disseminated tumor cells and metastases, and emphasize the connections between the basic biology of the tumor microenvironment to potential therapeutic intervention.

Additionally, Drs. Eric Brown and Luca Busino co-direct CAMB 530 (Cell Cycle, Genome Integrity and Cancer), a course focused on cell cycle progression, DNA damage checkpoints and repair, and how these pathways affect cancer etiology and treatment. Finally, Drs. Jim Alwine, Katy Wellen, and Celeste Simon are directing a new course CAMB 704 (Stress Responses and Metabolism in Cancer) since Spring 2014, which gives students a better understanding of the abrogation of normal cellular metabolism and stress signaling during cancer, and how these interplay with each other to create/maintain a malignant state.

Courses in Other Graduate Programs

In addition to courses associated with the CB program, AFCRI faculty direct a number of courses offered though other graduate programs, which include CAMB 637 (Gene Therapy Vectors), directed by Dr. Jim Riley. This seminar course is designed to provide students with a cohesive understanding of virology and immunology of gene therapy. Three major themes will be covered: vectors, vector immunology and gene therapy of genetic and acquired diseases. Dr. Nancy Speck is the Co-Director of CAMB 620 (Thematic Concepts in Developmental Biology), which is a seminar course designed to foster discussion about general strategies used by cells and organisms to solve fundamental problems during development. 


Many AFCRI faculty members, including Drs. Warren Pear, Craig Bassing, Bob Vonderheide, Carl June, David Roth, and Jim Riley play important roles in the Immunology Graduate Group (IGG) in BGS. Drs. Bob Vonderheide and Jim Riley co-direct the highly-successful Immunobiology Research in Progress Series, in collaboration with IGG and the Institute for Immunology (IFI). As with the CB program, many IGG students have chosen to conduct their thesis research in AFCRI labs.

AFCRI/CB/Student/Postdoc Seminar Series (CASPASE)

This informal series, dubbed CASPASE (Cancer Biology-AFCRI Student-Postdoc Afternoon Seminar Extravaganza), was initiated in 1999 to provide AFCRI/CB students and postdocs an opportunity to present their research to their peers. The seminars are held Friday afternoons during the academic year. Two graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow (almost entirely from AFCRI labs) each present a 12-minute talk followed by 8 minutes of discussion to gain interest, support, and feedback from fellow trainees and faculty alike. The atmosphere is informal, and the quality of the scientific presentations has been excellent. The talks generate a great deal of discussion both during and after the meetings in the following “happy hour.” This forum forges critical connections between graduate students and postdocs within the Institute, which embodies a vast array of cancer-focused topics. Thus, the CASPASE provides trainees with both a breadth of knowledge and resources to expand our research beyond its normal scope.

All CB graduate students are expected to participate in this series. Approximately 70% of AFCRI’s students are with the CB program. All CB faculty members are invited to attend and many CB students are not in AFCRI laboratories. This arrangement has encouraged AFCRI students, postdocs and faculty to interact more regularly with our many CB colleagues elsewhere in the School of Medicine. A student committee is selected each year to manage the talks. This arrangement places oversight of the series in the hands of the students, and they are frequently charged with the task of further improving the series. These students have continued to do an outstanding job year after year.

Advancing Graduate Studies (AGS) in Cancer Research

At the AFCRI, we continually explore additional avenues to support and enhance graduate education in Cancer Biology at Penn. As a first step in 2014, Drs. Brian Keith and Eric J. Brown have initiated a new award mechanism that rewards achievement, encourages student innovation, and enhances training: the AGS* Program. In 2015 it was expanded to five students and our hope is that it will continue to grow. This program provides independent funding for laboratory supplies, services, and travel funds to students in AFCRI, and other cancer research-focused laboratories. Award candidates are those that have been awarded highly competitive outside fellowships (NIH F30 and F31 NRSA fellowships, awards from the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense, as well as international student fellowships). The Patel Scholars Award - the first philanthropic award under this mechanism - was established through a generous $500,000 donation from Mukesh D. and Bhavna M. Patel. Details about the Patel Scholar Award are provided below. The AGS program is co-directed by Dr. Eric J. Brown and Dr. Margaret Chou.

The Patel Scholar Award provides recipient students with $14,000 per year (maximum of 3 years) for research supplies and research core services and $1,000 per year for travel. To apply, students send copies of their awarded fellowship’s Summary Statement face page and the Notice of Award. Funding is based on the impact score of awarded proposals (F30/F31) and is given to all recipients of the highly competitive National Science Foundation fellowships. Award criteria for Department of Defense and competitive international scholarships are under consideration. In 2013, a total of 3 awards were given for NIH F30/31 fellowships. This number grew to 5 recipients in 2014 and 5 more in 2016. Awardees are known as Patel Scholars. This award is intended to assist in graduate training and spur innovation from our remarkably talented trainees.

*AGS is pronounced “aegis”: the power to protect or support something or someone.

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