Introduction to Program

Chemical biology is a rapidly growing field that combines the rigor and quantitative aspects of traditional chemistry and biochemistry programs with the excitement and medical relevance of modern molecular, cellular, organismic, and human biology. We believe that many biological problems demand molecular and quantitative answers that can only be supplied by tools and approaches derived from chemistry — such as single-molecule measurements, single-cell imaging, and the use of exogenous molecules to modulate the activity of cellular components. The integration of chemistry, biology, and medicine has become an integral and essential aspect of the training and research culture at Harvard, and this spirit is embodied in the Chemical Biology Program.

The Program links together faculty on Harvard's Cambridge campus (Faculty of Arts and Sciences, or FAS) with faculty at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the Harvard-MIT Broad Institute. Labs at the Chemistry Department offer world-class expertise in molecular design, analytical chemistry and physical chemistry, while labs at HMS have outstanding strengths in natural product chemistry, drug discovery, and the use of chemical tools to probe biological systems. The chemical biology faculty at HMS are embedded in arguably the richest concentration of biomedical expertise in the world; and the Broad Institute leads the world in the development of technology to exploit the uses of genomic information, including chemical technologies. Students in the Program are encouraged to take full advantage of this remarkable breadth of opportunity by working with faculty to devise novel approaches to important biological, medical and chemical problems.

While the list of program faculty is large and diverse, the Program itself is small, flexible and intimate. Our goal is to encourage students to develop their own ideas, drawing on the expertise available in the community to make exciting new discoveries.

For more information, please visit our website.

Admissions Requirements

The typical student has a strong background in one of the disciplines relevant to Chemical Biology and a strong interest in interdisciplinary research. Scores on the general Graduate Record Examination (GRE) are required and one subject GRE in a relevant field is recommended. TOEFL is required of all foreign applicants other than those whose native language is ­English.

Online submission of the application is ­required. Please refer to the GSAS Admissions page for further information on applying, Students should request information from: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A number of candidates will be invited to interview in mid February. Final decisions concerning admission are made by the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the candidates are notified by letter from the Admissions Office.

Degree Requirements


Incoming students will meet individually with the co-directors to discuss their background and interests. Co-directors will assist each student in developing a personalized curriculum and deciding on laboratory rotations which will complement the student's existing training.

Students are required to take CB300: Introduction to Chemical Biology Research; Chem170: Chemical Biology; CB2200: Introduction to Chemical Biology; BCMP309: Principles of Drug Action in Man; BCMP207: Molecular Approaches to Drug Action, Discovery and Design; MedSci 300: Conduct of Science; and three additional courses chosen in consultation with the program co-directors. These courses must be passed with a B average or better.

Chemistry 170. Chemical Biology. Applying chemical approaches to problems in biology. Topics include: protein engineering and directed evolution; RNA catalysis and gene regulation; chemical genetics, genomics, and proteomics; drug action and resistance; rational and combinatorial approaches to drug discovery; metabolic engineering.

BCMP309 (quarter course): Principles of Drug Action in Man & BCMP307 (quarter course): Molecular Approaches to Drug Action, Discovery, and Design. Application of molecular, systems, and structural biology, genetics, genomics, enzymology, and chemistry to drug action and development of new therapies. Analyzes molecular underpinnings of pharmacological principles. Examples drawn from diseases including cancer and AIDS.

CB2200: Introduction to Chemical Biology. This course will provide a survey of major topics, technologies, and themes in chemical biology, with hands-on exposure to a variety of experimental approaches.

CB300: Introduction to Chemical Biology Research. Lectures introduce the research areas of current program faculty in Chemical Biology.

Laboratory Rotations

Students are expected to complete two–four laboratory rotations. The program does not set time limits on rotations, but most rotations are expected to be 6-12 weeks long. Rotations allow students to explore different research areas, identify potential collaborators, and experience the environment in different research groups. The purpose of the rotation is to facilitate the choice of the dissertation laboratory, not to accomplish a research project. Students may rotate in the labs of faculty outside of our program with program approval.

First year students must choose their dissertation laboratory no later than June 30th.

Preliminary Qualifying Exams (PQE)

The aim of the PQE is to assess the student’s ability to review research in a particular field, to identify a problem or formulate a central hypothesis that is significant for the field, to design line(s) of experimentation to address the problem or test the hypothesis, and to describe how she or he will interpret the data that would result from the proposed experiment. The topic for the proposal may be related to a student’s dissertation research or the topic may be completely independent.

Students must take the exam by March 15thof their second year.

Teaching Requirement

All students are required to serve as a teaching assistant for one course by the end of their second year of graduate study. The course should be relevant to chemical biology but need not be one of the core courses.

Dissertation Research

After passing the PQE, a dissertation advisory committee (DAC) of at least three members (not including the dissertation advisor) must be appointed by the end of October of the student’s third year and a meeting scheduled by the end of December. Subject to program approval, any three faculty members may serve on the committee.

The role of the DAC is to assist the student in defining the dissertation project; review scientific progress; offer critical evaluation, suggesting extension or modification of objectives; arbitrate differences of opinion between the student and the advisor if they arise; and decide when the work accomplished constitutes a dissertation. The hope is that the committee will help students get their research off to a good start and serve as a resource for students at any point during their graduate career.

Dissertation Defense

The DAC, in consultation with the dissertation advisor, determines when it is time for a student to stop laboratory work and begin to write his or her dissertation. The dissertation defense is comprised of two components: the first is a public presentation made to the department and community as a whole; the second is a private defense and examination before the student’s examination committee.

Recent Chemical Biology Dissertation Titles

  • Craig Braun. "Structural Characterization of BCL-2 Family Interactions Using Photoreactive Stapled Peptides and Mass Spectrometry." (Walensky lab)
  • Ye Grace Chen "The Discovery and Characterization of NAD-Linked RNA." (Liu Lab)
  • James Cronican "Macromolecule delivery into mammalian cells using supercharged proteins." (Liu Lab)
  • Elizaveta Freinkman "Assembly and regulation of the lipopolysaccharide transporter." (Kahne Lab)
  • Pulin Li "Chemical Genetics of Hematopoietic Stem Cells Transplantation" (Zon Lab)
  • Ruiqi Rachel Wang "Monolayer Purificationand Affinity Grid for Single-Particle Electron Microscopy." (Walz Lab)

Participating Faculty