On Friday, October 9 UMass celebrated the kickoff of the Soft Materials for Life Sciences National Research Training Program (SMLS-NRT), marking an exciting new approach to graduate training in the natural sciences and an important opportunity to build meaningful collaboration between the social and natural sciences at UMass. The NSF-funded SMLS-NRT is a 5-year, approximately $3 million program that aims to build what program co-Directors Kenneth Carter and Gregory Tew (Polymer Science) describe as the "T-shaped" skill set of technical depth and collaborative breadth among a new generation of polymer and life science graduate students. Directly supporting inter-disciplinary training in science, science policy, and collaborative research management for 74 students across the polymer science and engineering, immunology, food science and engineering fields, the SMLS-NRT's broader impacts will be sustained by its innovations in scientific training methods. Students interested in participating in the program should submit an application, available here.
One innovation that helped the intellectual merits of the UMass proposal stand out in a competitive field was the significant integration of social science expertise in its design, implementation, and knowledge-building processes. Such collaboration is one of the central missions for the Institute for Social Science Research, and ISSR Director Laurel Smith-Doerr joined the Principal Investigators from their earliest conversations about the program goals and methods, including substantive training for SMLS participants on scientific collaboration and policy pathways and the integration of social science research within the program itself. For example, sociology graduate student Timothy Sacco will conduct ethnographic research on collaboration processes within the program to better understand “the science of science.” Research like Sacco’s advances basic science while offering the Leadership team timely and granular insights to improve the program. Smith-Doerr describes the SMLS-NRT as a “test case for how social science can be meaningfully integrated into a large, interdisciplinary project,” one that is already generating lessons about the importance of starting the collaboration early and attending to the opportunities for deep learning and engagement on both social and natural science frontiers.