A Short Course in

Cancer Systems Biology

2021 Update

The Cancer Systems Biology course is an NIH-sponsored, didactic and practical educational experience designed to bridge individual training deficits and facilitate entry into the Cancer Systems Biology field and to provide a high-level systems biology exploration of issues in current cancer research. It is normally held on the UC Irvine campus, in beautiful Southern California, and includes lectures and laboratory modules over an intensive three-week period.


This year’s installment of the course, originally scheduled for May 2021, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A call for applications for the 2022 installment will be released in the Fall.


In the meantime, we are pleased to be able to offer a free, virtual “mini-course,” occurring in 10 half-day segments over two weeks in August, which is designed both to expose interested participants to some of the regular course content.  If you are potentially interested in joining us for the full course in 2022, and want to find out if it’s right for you, consider registering for this “mini-course”. You may also want to join us if you are new to Cancer Systems Biology, or simply want to learn more about how to chart a successful career as an interdisciplinary scientist.  Application is open to scientists and trainees at all levels. We strongly encourage applications from scientists and trainees with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, including those who identify as underrepresented in the biomedical field. Pre-registration is required, and spots for hands-on workshop may be limited depending on the number of requests received.  
Cancer Systems Biology:

2021 Course Dates: August 2 - 13, 2021

  • Week 1: Preparatory Workshop
  • Week 2: Core course

Who Should Apply?

This course is targeted at graduate and medical students, post-docs, clinical fellows, faculty and biomedical industry researchers with either of two backgrounds: training mainly in the biological and biomedical sciences, or training mainly in mathematics, physics, engineering or computer science.

Whatever your background, if you are reading this, you’ve probably had some specific experience—in the classroom, library or laboratory—that led you to wonder whether you could have a more effective and more satisfying research experience by applying methodologies outside of traditional biology, as exemplified in Systems Biology, to problems in cancer.

Systems Biology, which integrates mathematical and computational modeling, network modeling, control theory and information theory, is now being used to provide insight on cancer initiation, progression and response to treatment and promises to identify new and more effective treatments and management strategies.

Many biomedically-trained researchers are unfamiliar, however, with the fundamentals of Systems Biology, which limits their ability to apply this approach to their research. At the same time, non-biomedically-trained researchers who have expertise in the mathematical, computational and engineering sciences are unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Cancer Biology, which limits their ability to apply this knowledge to cancer and to effectively collaborate with cancer biologists.

Our course seeks to bridge these gaps in training and use classroom and wet and dry laboratory experiences to provide a high-level introduction to Systems Biology and its application to cancer relevant problems.

Course Philosophy

Widespread integration of Systems and Cancer Biology is hampered by a lack of training. Cancer researchers typically do not receive sufficient training in mathematical, statistical and computational tools, and physicists and mathematicians – those from non-biomedical fields who have a theoretical and computational knowledge base – lack sufficient training in cancer biology.

To address these issues, the 3-week intensive Cancer Systems Biology Course was designed to:

  1. Provide participants with an understanding of what Systems Biology is, and how it can enrich current trends in cancer biology and biomedical research, so that they may recognize the different kinds of questions that each approach can answer.
  2. Allow participants to sample, through lectures and hands-on activities, current research topics in Cancer Systems Biology.
  3. Provide participants not simply with exposure to “pre-packaged” data-analysis methods, but with sufficient grounding in mathematical, computational and statistical fundamentals, so that they can use methods appropriately, responsibly and confidently, knowing their purposes, capabilities and limits.
  4. Help participants develop a deep understanding of mathematical, computational and statistical models—how they are developed, used, and in some cases, validated—in biomedical research.
  5. Expand participants’ scientific vocabulary and concept inventory, so that they may profitably interact in the future with (and potentially collaborate with) researchers with complementary training, e.g., collaborations between Mathematicians, Physicists, Engineers, Computer Scientists and Cancer Biologists.
  6. Provide opportunities for community-building and mentoring among course participants and faculty.


Cancer Biology at UCI

UCI’s strong focus on Cancer Biology research and training was recognized in 1980 with the formation and approval of the Cancer Research Institute as an organized research institute, a formal institute with emphasis on basic cancer-related research. The mission of the CRI is to facilitate research and interactions of its members, and to organize educational activities and national and international meetings. CRI members have successfully maintained an NIH T32 training grant in Carcinogenesis (now Cancer Biology) for 36 years and an institutional grant from the American Cancer Society to provide competitive seed funds to junior investigators (22 total years).

In the meantime, UCI's clinical cancer research portfolio was formalized as an NCI-designated special cancer center in 1994, and in 1997, NCI awarded UCI its top designation as a comprehensive cancer center, now known as the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center (CFCCC). The CRI currently functions as the basic science arm of the CFCCC, with the director of the CRI (Dr. Marian Waterman) reporting to the director of the CFCCC (Dr. Richard Van Etten). Since 1997, the clinical research portfolio and the basic science accomplishments at UCI have grown considerably.

Members of the CRI and CFCCC span the spectrum of engineers, physicists, biologists, chemists, epidemiologists, physician scientists and clinicians. In 2011, the CFCCC recognized the growing importance of systems biology in understanding cancer by incorporating developmental biologists and mathematicians from the Center for Complex Biological Systems (CCBS) into its membership and appointing Dr. John Lowengrub to be Program co-Leader of a new program called “Systems, Pathways and Targets”. Since then, productive collaborations between cancer biologists and systems biologists have been established and new approaches to genomics, metabolism, and signaling have been developed.

Systems Biology at UCI

The Center for Complex Biological Systems (CCBS), started in 2001 as a discussion forum among a dozen faculty from biology, mathematics and engineering, and grew into a thriving community of over 100 laboratories, supported by a variety of external grants. Its mission has been to promote systems biology research and training to foster the development of a closely-knit community of biologists, clinicians, physicists, mathematicians, chemists, engineers and computer scientists.

CCBS has grown into a thriving community of over 100 research groups, supported by a variety of external grants. The Short Course in Cancer Systems Biology leverages both our previous experiences in teaching Systems Biology to diverse audiences and the productive collaborations between cancer biologists and systems biologists that have emerged at UCI. We present an educational program plan that is designed to meet the goals and requirements of an NCI Cancer Research Skills Short Course, combining some of the best elements of our previous NIGMS course with new ideas and materials targeted to an audience focused on learning about the Systems Biology of Cancer. In particular, we will provide a high level introduction to concepts from Systems Biology that are needed by cancer systems biologists and we will apply these concepts to research topics in Cancer Biology involving oncogenesis, heterogeneity and spatiotemporal dynamics of cancer and its microenvironment.