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Feature Stories

At the Interface
Institute for Cellular Engineering blends disciplines for better learning outcomes
Susan Roberts, right, in lab with graduate student and cell cultures.

The program is designed to move away from the culture of “isolationist discovery,” as the ICE website refers to it, and into that of the “interdisciplinary melting pot.” 

In an emerging science such as cellular engineering, breakthroughs are almost commonplace—technological upgrades, and the nationwide push for biomedicine and biofuels, have brought rapid advancements to the field. In order to keep up, the UMass Amherst Institute for Cellular Engineering (ICE) is working to generate interdisciplinary collaborations and traineeship opportunities at the interface of engineering and the life sciences.

The Institute is wrapping up a National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant for $3 million—an interdisciplinary project focused on training rising, young researchers interested in pursuing cellular engineering. The program is designed to nurture a new generation of cellular engineers that understands the importance of interdisciplinary work and of coming together to think more broadly about their research goals. The program is designed to move away from the culture of “isolationist discovery,” as the ICE website refers to it, and into that of the “interdisciplinary melting pot.”

“I strongly feel, as does the IGERT program, that in order to solve the really complex problems of today you need to bring together people from different backgrounds who embrace approaches and perspectives from other disciplines,” says founding ICE director Susan Roberts (above right with one of her IGERT students).

The Institute’s IGERT program fortifies cross-disciplinary relationships for both faculty and students. Inspired to have more student-directed discussion, the IGERT students were instrumental in the creation of a new style of journal club offered through ICE. Students in the club are arranged into groups of ten to ensure diversity of research interests and level of seniority. Each student is asked to choose a classic paper in their area of study to examine in depth, and also a paper that documents the implementation of the classic breakthrough in a current context. They analyze the papers aloud with their groups without the presence of faculty —a simple, engaging way to expose students to multi-disciplinary topics in a non-threatening atmosphere. Through the IGERT program’s monthly Coffee and Connections series, mix-disciplined faculty with overlapping research interests are challenged to give a joint presentation to students regarding hurdles in their field, with a focus on societal, economic and environmental impact.

The IGERT students participate in laboratory modules intended to instill them with state-of-the-art cellular engineering techniques and approaches. These modules are given over a two-day period, cover a variety of topics and are modeled after professional workshops. Because students began to request more career guidance, Roberts and IGERT Program Director Ms. Shana Passonno started putting together an annual event devoted to professional development, which has become extremely popular. Roberts says that the staff at the Institute works hard to provide “top-notch” expertise and resources for their students based on extensive student feedback and input.

“I think one of the hallmarks of our program is that it very much meets the needs and desires of the students,” says Roberts.

With additional funding from the NSF, the Institute offers a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program—a nine-week program that takes place over the summer. Qualifying undergraduate students from all over the country are invited to campus to conduct hands-on research and participate in a variety of seminars and workshops, while earning a stipend of $500 per week. The program has been remarkably successful in recruiting a diverse group of graduate students, and about 25 percent of REU participants return to UMass for their graduate studies.

Roberts and the ICE team are now applying for a National Institutes of Health training grant that would require the Institute’s graduate students to complete internships in industry. Roberts says that partnership is an important part of the training—she wants students to be more involved in connecting their research with potential outcomes.

“I think it’s really important for students to think about their individual research and what components of it might be something that’s translational—either a technology they’ve developed or a discovery that they’ve made,” says Roberts.

Roberts continues to strive for increased diversity among the ICE faculty and students. She is working closely with Sandy Petersen and the UMass Amherst STEM Diversity Institute to build bridges with underrepresented populations. The ICE has forged a partnership with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and brings two hard-of-hearing students to campus every summer to learn and grow as researchers. As a result, the team has doubled the underrepresented graduate student population seen in individual participating departments.

“We’ve been really, really happy with the diversity that we’ve been able to attract…it’s something that we all value,” says Roberts.

With new grants on the way and a cutting edge cluster of laboratories under construction, ICE is well positioned for continued success. Robert expects that the new, centralized ICE location will enhance the interdisciplinary projects that are already underway and enable more diverse research alliances.

 “I think it’s going to catalyze a lot of new collaborations and really open the door for new research directions,” says Roberts.

Amanda Drane '12