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The GSBS story

Conquest - Fall 2013

50 years of educating scientists

A snapshot of co-leaders’ first year

By Sandi Stromberg

In 2012, the presidents of MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) took an unprecedented step that changed a 50-year tradition. They appointed two scientists to lead the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS): Michelle Barton Ph.D., from MD Anderson, and Michael Blackburn, Ph.D., from UTHealth.

Michael Blackburn, Ph.D., and Michelle Barton, Ph.D., find working together as co-leaders of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences a rewarding career move and something to celebrate along with the school’s 50th anniversary.
Photo: Adolfo Chavez III

Barton and Blackburn had been active in GSBS for many years — teaching in their areas of expertise, training students in their labs, serving on committees and assuming other leadership roles — before they became its joint leaders. And both are experts in biochemistry and molecular biology: Barton and her lab pursuing new findings in epigenetics and breast cancer (see "Understanding epigenetics to develop new therapies"), Blackburn studying lung diseases.

It’s been an inspired move that has set the graduate school, a partnership between the two institutions, on an enhanced path as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this autumn. MD Anderson President Ronald DePinho, M.D., and UTHealth President Giuseppe Colasurdo, M.D., were both on hand for the kick-off reception on October 3. An alumni reunion is scheduled for November, and there will be various other events throughout the year.

What has been accomplished in your first year in this position?

Blackburn: We’ve accomplished quite a lot. A few examples include enhanced recruitment and admissions practices and outcomes; the formation of a “boot camp orientation” for new students; and enhanced efforts in career development for our students.

Barton: We’ve been active on many fronts. To mention only a few: The overall quality of our entering Ph.D. class was significantly enhanced. We successfully recruited 27% more top-ranked students than last year. We also facilitated an external review of the graduate school by three national leaders in biomedical graduate education. The written report will help guide strategic planning efforts in admissions and recruitment, curriculum and programs, as well as career development.

What are your goals for the school?

Barton: The primary one is to give our students the self-confidence they need to realize the potential each and every one of them has. I know this will help us accomplish our other major goal, which is to broadcast to the world what a fantastic graduate school we have here, the incredible resources we have and the unique opportunities we offer.

Blackburn: The broad goals for the school include enhancing the overall quality of the education, increasing its visibility in the scientific community and improving ranking among other graduate schools. To help accomplish these goals we’re putting in place programs to enhance our recruitment of top students, expose them to innovative curriculum, promote critical thinking and communication, and facilitate their research training in the laboratories of our outstanding faculty.

How does it feel to be sharing this leadership position as the school reaches its 50th anniversary?

Barton: To share this with Dr. Blackburn is the best way to tackle the challenges of this position. We’ve been able to work in synergy and complement each other’s strengths. It’s great that it occurs at the time of our 50th anniversary.

Blackburn: Working with Dr. Barton is one of the biggest wins of our first year, and it’s fun to celebrate the anniversary together. We’ve developed a new tag line for the school, “Synergy in Science.” It was Dr. Barton’s idea, and it really captures what we’re promoting. We’re unique in that we serve two institutions, which together excel in research efforts that target not only cancer, but nearly every common disease that afflicts our society. The opportunity this provides our students is amazing and gives us much to celebrate.

Historical highlights of the GSBS


  • MD Anderson President R. Lee Clark, M.D., leads the movement to establish a graduate school in Houston with 13 pre-doctoral (Ph.D.) students studying with scientists at MD Anderson and enrolled through The University of Texas at Austin.


  • Texas House Bill 500 passes on June 11, 1963, and establishes the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and is ratified by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas on Sept. 28, 1963.
  • The Texas Commission of Higher Education approves master of science and doctor of philosophy degree programs in biology, biochemistry and physics with emphasis restricted to biomedical sciences and adapted to research facilities at MD Anderson.


  • First dean is appointed: Paul A. Weiss, Ph.D.


  • The University of Texas Medical School at Houston is established and basic science faculty assimilated into GSBS.


  • The University of Texas System establishes the Health Science Center in Houston.


  • House Bill 713 conjoins the Health Science Center and MD Anderson in the awarding of graduate degrees in the biomedical sciences through GSBS.


  • GSBS moves into its current home in MD Anderson’s George and Cynthia Mitchell Basic Science Research Building in the June and Virgil Waggoner Academic Hall.


  • GSBS receives unconditional recommendation for accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Numerous doctoral programs ranked among the best in the nation in the National Research Council assessment.


  • After a year’s national search, a dual deanship is created to provide overarching leadership and guidance.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center