Life is an emergent property. Individual molecules are not alive, and molecules only start to become alive when present in sufficient numbers and appropriate organization to build a cell. Understanding how life works must, necessarily, require conceptual and experimental ways to study complex interactions of many components. For decades, molecular biology has pursued a reductionist agenda in which the individual molecules involved in particular processes were identified, purified, and studied in isolation. This approach has transformed our understanding of the living world at scales ranging from enzymes to organs. However, we remain limited in our ability to understand how the molecular components work together as a system to produce life in all its variety. Systems biology aims to understand the emergent properties of living systems by combining tools from biology with approaches derived from physical and computational sciences. It is thus a quantitative discipline, yet one whose ultimate purpose is to understand actual living systems, including cells, embryos, and tissues.


As a world-leading center of fundamental biomedical research, UCSF provides an outstanding venue to pursue the study of systems-level thinking in the context of real biology. Our faculty have long played a leading role in developing molecular and high-throughput “omics” approaches to biology, giving our program a focus on the biology itself. It is possible to study systems biology questions from a purely physics or mathematical viewpoint, and such a viewpoint is clearly very important. Systems biology at UCSF focuses on the biology first, with the view of bringing in quantitative methods to answer long-standing biological questions. Such an approach, which focuses on biological questions, presents an excellent opportunity not only for students with biological backgrounds to extend their training into more quantitative directions, but also for students from non-biological backgrounds to gain true expertise in cutting-edge biological research. The fact that UCSF is a medical center also creates unprecedented opportunities to learn about systems biological approaches in the context of medicine and human disease. Precision medicine has emerged as a translational version of systems biology, and UCSF is a leading center in this important new field.

About CBS

The DE in Complex Biological Systems is an interdisciplinary program specifically designed around the engineering of complex biological systems. At a fundamental level, this program seeks to train scientists and engineers to be simultaneously conversant in the multiple languages of biology, mathematics, physics, and engineering, in order to manipulate and re-engineer living cells and molecular systems. We are focused on the challenge of engineering synthetic circuitry within complex systems from an interdisciplinary team-based perspective. The DE in Complex Biological Systems brings together students from all graduate programs at UCSF whose work is focused on synthetic and systems biology to share their research, participate in joint projects, and enable scientific cross-pollination.

There are no formal classes that are required for this DE, but the student’s thesis project must be focused on engineering goals within the broader framework of synthetic and systems biology. Students interested in this DE should submit the “change of Degree Objective” form upon Advancement to Candidacy. Program Directors Orion Weiner and Wallace Marshall will verify eligibility for the DE based on the student’s proposed thesis project.

Co-directors Wallace Marshall and Orion Weiner
Manager Rebecca Dawson, MS


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