Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the Vagelos (Va-j-elos) Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences (MLS)?

The Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences is for students intending to become research scientists within the context of biochemistry, biophysical chemistry, biotechnology, computational biology, gene therapy, genetic engineering, genomics, molecular biology, molecular genetics, molecular medicine, neurobiology, nanotechnology, structural biology, or systems biology. The unique feature is an opportunity to work in a Penn research laboratory in the summers after both the sophomore and junior years with stipend. Forty course units leading to a B.A. with two science majors are required. Alternatively, students can major in Biochemistry, Chemistry, or Physics, and earn a simultaneous "submatriculation" master's degree. The program is based in the Chemistry Department of the School of Arts and Sciences. Freshmen are invited to join the program in April before their first September at Penn.

The School of Arts and Sciences joint program with the Wharton school, the Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management, is different.

2. Is it possible to do everything in only four years?

All students have completed the program in four years or less. Furthermore, the typical student who embarks on the Vagelos Program will most likely have multiple Advanced Placement credits, allowing not only placement in intermediate level courses, but more flexibility.

This program has been called "accelerated," "intensive," or "rigorous." These are not accurate descriptors. The required science and mathematics courses are also taken as part of the chemistry, mathematics or physics programs by students outside of the Vagelos Molecular Life Sciences Program. The courses are rigorous in the logical sense--not extreme. The Program students often approach their academic work with intensity--but it is a result of internally generated passion. We do require five credit units per semester which is, in the College, more work.

3. Will I be able to take courses in a broad range of subjects?

Students in the Vagelos Scholars Program will complete all of the sector, cross-cultural, language and writing requirements of the College of Arts and Sciences. Those who are interested in more breadth will do a dual major, while those interested in more depth will submatriculate (a Penn expression) and complete an M.S. in the four years they are at Penn.

In the fall of 2010, it became possible to do a second major in the Engineering and Applied Sciences School as a student in the College of Arts and Sciences

The commitment to participate in the Vagelos Scholars Program can be reversed at any time. Alternate programs chosen by Biochemistry majors include second majors in Asian Studies, English, History, Music, or dual degrees with Wharton or Engineering. Several students each year choose to do a third non-sciences major.

4. Should I take Advanced Placement courses? What effect do they have?

Students in this program, irrespective of the number of Advanced Placement units, are expected to complete forty course units at the University of Pennsylvania. Advanced Placement credits will allow you to start in intermediate level courses. Advanced Placement language credits will allow you an opportunity to explore further in either science or non-science courses. As we note below, we expect a typical Vagelos Scholars Program student to have taken all the advanced science and mathematics courses offered by their high school.

5. What will be my major? Can I select any major?

Vagelos Scholars Program students will major in Chemistry, Biochemistry, or Physics and a second science major chosen from Biochemistry, Biology, Biological Basis of Behavior, Biophysics, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences, Geology, Mathematics, Physics, or Psychology. In the fall of 2010, it became possible to do a second major in the Engineering and Applied Sciences School as a student in the College of Arts and Sciences.

6. Is a dual degree possible?

In the past five years, in addition to a B.A., 85% of Vagelos students have chosen to earn a master's degree in Chemistry, Physics, Biotechnology or Computational Science. The latter two are from the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Although an M.S. degree is a second degree, Penn’s use of “dual” means two bachelor’s degrees. Some MLS students do complete an additional B.A. This is not encouraged.

7. How much choice is there for the summer research participation requirement?

Penn is unique in that the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Engineering and Applied Sciences, Medicine, Dental Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine are on one contiguous campus. In addition, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Penn Pediatrics), Monell Chemical Senses Center, the University City Science Center, a Veterans Administration hospital, and The Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology are on adjacent city blocks. Together there are in excess of 1000 faculty-led laboratories to choose from.

8. What kinds of careers do Vagelos Program students pursue?

Graduate and Professional Schools Attended by 2002-2015 Vagelos Scholars Graduates - Total: 196 in 14 years

Ph.D. Programs (75) M.D. Programs (73) M.D.+Ph.D. (28)

Caltech (4)
Cambridge, UK (2)*
Carnegie Mellon
Columbia (5)**
Harvard (16)
Johns Hopkins
MIT (7)†
Oxford, UK
Penn (5)
Stanford (9)
U Chicago (5)
UCBerkeley (5)
UCSanta Barbara (2)
UCSF (2)
U Wisconsin
WashU St. Louis

Albany Medical College
Boston U
Case Western (2)
Columbia (6)
George Washington
Medical College of GA
Harvard (4) (1 MD/MBA)
Jefferson (2)
Johns Hopkins (2)
Mt. Sinai (2)
NYU (6)
Penn (13) (1 MD/MBA, 1 DMD, 3 VMD)
Penn State
Rutgers NJMS (2)
Sydney, Australia
UMiami (2)
UMich (3)
U Pittsburgh
UT Southwestern
Vanderbilt (2)
WashU St. Louis (4)*
Yale (3) (1 MD/MHS)

Albert Einstein
Harvard (4)
Johns Hopkins*
Mt. Sinai
Penn (9)
U Chicago
UCLA (2)
UT Southwestern (2)
U Rochester
WashU St. Louis (2)

Includes: * 1 Gates-Cambridge Scholar; ** 1 Fulbright Scholar; † 1 Churchill Scholar

Other Grad: (8)
Bradford MS (went on to Penn State PhD)
Cambridge MPhil
Colorado MS (went on to UC Irvine Medical School)
Cornell MS
Harvard MS
Penn MPA, MSEd
UConn MA (went on to Notre Dame PhD)

Employment: (5)
Teach for America
Triage Consulting
Deloitte Consultant (went on to Yale MBA)

Hiatus: (6)
Harvard Research Assistant
Penn Research Assistant (2)
IMC Financial Markets Analyst
Max Planck Institute (FL)
Other (2)

The above parallels our experience with the very successful College Biochemistry Program, which has been offered for over thirty years. Our students complete their education in the very best Ph.D. programs, M.D. programs or combined degree programs.
Roy Vagelos himself earned his B.A. in our department in 1950 after which he had a very successful career in science and business.

Historically, of seven science Nobel Prize laureates who earned degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, five earned degrees from the Chemistry Department. Two received B.A. degrees in Chemistry, followed by M.D.s at Penn: M. S. Brown (B.A., 1962; M.D., 1966) and S. B. Prusiner (B.A., 1964, M.D., 1968). Christian Afinsen earned a master's degree in Chemistry (1939), and two earned Ph.D's in Chemistry, Negishi (1963) and Zewail (1974).

In this context, David Baltimore (Nobel Prize in Medicine,1975; also past President of both the Rockefeller University and the California Institute of Technology), while an undergraduate at Swarthmore College (a highly regarded four-year liberal arts college near Philadelphia), did his honors thesis research in the laboratories of two Penn Chemistry faculty in 1960.

Our vision is that Vagelos Scholars will seek novel research paths. Molecular life sciences are broader than today's views of the biosphere: agriculture, medicine, earth sciences and psychology. Today's examples of molecular life sciences include: use of molecular machines from organisms of volcanic hot springs and oceanic thermal vents to sequence DNA to be assembled by mathematical algorithms -- a short cut to the genome project, merely a large molecular structure determination. Use of functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the relation of language acquisition and anatomic location in the human brain -- a process that uses the physics of the atomic nucleus to monitor changes in chemical environment of molecules in the brain which are localized and mapped by mathematical algorithms. This will become the basis of psychology and linguistics in the future.

9. I want to attend medical school after college. Will this program help?

A science major is not required for a successful application to medical school. The extra science requirements for the Vagelos Scholars Program represent very serious interest in the molecular approach to medical science, and the intention to participate on the frontiers of the field.

The majority of medical schools recommend the equivalent of 15 Penn credit units of mathematics and science; at Penn these are usually the first two semesters of calculus (2 c.u.), freshman and organic chemistry (6 c.u. including labs), two semesters of biology (3 c.u. including lab), as well as two semesters of physics (3 c.u. including lab). Two semesters of English or Comparative Literature are also usually required. Two semesters of English or Comparative Literature and a semester of behavioral science are also usually recommended.

The Vagelos Scholars Program with the College writing and sector requirements covers all of these recommended courses. You are also referred to Medical School Admissions Requirements, published by the Association of American Medical Colleges, which issues a new edition every April. This is available electronically.

10. I am interested in neural sciences and brain function; is this program useful?

Current projects to map function and all cellular connections in the brain and its associated networks depend on the interrogation of the quantum mechanical state and location of atomic nuclei or the use of excited electronic states of molecules. This is all physics and chemistry.

11. Will I be too busy to be involved in activities beyond the course work and the laboratory?

Students in the Vagelos Molecular Scholars Program participate in the full range of student athletic, social or performance activities, although some compromises will have to be made.   The experience of over 150 graduates includes several who graduated a semester early and one a year early, all with 40 or more credit units taken at Penn. In addition, five students were able to spend at least one semester abroad (Argentina, Botswana, Italy, Kenya and Spain).  One student was involved with the fencing team and a number of national and international tournaments.  At least three students have had significant roles with the Daily Pennsylvanian as editorial staff, columnists, photographers and cartoonists.  Students headed to medical school are all able to spend time in some aspect of health care participation because of the five hospitals that are either on or adjacent to campus.

12. How do I apply for the Vagelos Scholars Scholars Program?

There are two ways to apply. a) All students admitted to the University of Pennsylvania who stated on the application form that they intend to major in Biochemistry or Chemistry will automatically be reviewed. Outstanding students will receive an invitation to join the Program about April 1. b) Any student who receives a letter of admission to the College in December or April and enrolls in May may request a review of their eligibility any time up to September.

13. Can I apply Early Decision?

Students who apply Early Decision will be reviewed at the same time as regular decision students. Should they qualify, they will be informed at the same time as regular decision students, approximately one week after regular admission letters are sent in April.

14. What are the criteria for consideration?

We are looking for outstanding students with strong verbal and mathematical skills. Ideally, the student should have taken all the Advanced Placement courses in science and mathematics offered by his/her high school and, if possible, submit scores for SAT-II subject tests in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Focused effort on one or two activities outside the classroom is more favorably viewed than superficial participation in many.

15. How many students will be accepted into the Program?

We are admitting approximately 50 from each freshman class into the Vagelos Seminar course, Chemistry 22. With normal attrition, recently there have been 20-25 from each class with summer stipends after their respective sophomore and junior years.

16. How does the Vagelos Scholars Program affect financial aid?

All Scholars, like all Penn full-time undergraduates, will receive financial aid based on need during the academic year.

Summer stipends will be given to all Scholars, usually after sophomore and junior years.

17. Can I transfer into the Vagelos Scholars Program?

The Program does not accept transfer students. However, it is possible to transfer to Wharton or SEAS at the end of freshman year.