AMHERST, Mass. – There is increasing recognition in science education today that highly creative research advances come not only from individual effort but from collaboration across different disciplines. This calls for young scientists to have more team-oriented skills, especially in industry and government labs where work is often done by groups of scientists and engineers trained in fundamentally different ways, says researcher Gregory N. Tew at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
A program started here two years ago to meet this need recently awarded its first graduate certificates to three students who successfully completed the “Soft Materials for Life Sciences” program. Launched in September 2015 with a five-year, $2.98 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s National Research Traineeship (NRT) program, it offers a new model for graduate education that emphasizes multi-disciplinary collaboration and effective communication.
NRT director Kenneth Carter and co-director Tew, both professors of polymer science and engineering, announced that doctoral candidates Michael Kwasny of Columbus, Ohio, Yalin Liu of China and Sunilkumar Khandavalli of Jangareddygudem,India, earned their new two-year certificates by taking professional development workshops in such topics as science communication and research writing, by attending weekly seminars with guest researchers from varied fields and by taking six interdisciplinary graduate credits taught by faculty from six core departments, among other requirements.
One of the NRT’s goals is to improve communication skills, and the program is structured for that, Tew says. NRT students from across the campus meet monthly in a student leadership council, where they are asked to take a leadership role and actively communicate with faculty about what would make their experience better. Another NRT goal is to broaden career opportunities.
Liu says of her NRT experience, “It helped me to build up collaborations, improved my lab skills and engaged me in professional development. I enjoyed training through the NRT, which not only helped me on the research side, but also provided lots of opportunities to network with faculty and industrial contacts. I will recommend this program to upcoming graduate students.”
Khandavalli adds, “I certainly have learned a lot more things. I took fun courses, and was exposed to much broader aspects of the graduate education through the NRT program I perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise in these two years.”
Tew says, “What I see happening is students from different backgrounds and scientific disciplines who normally aren’t talking to each other in depth are doing that now. It makes them a much better communicator of why the science they are doing is important. It makes them more agile in talking to people in different disciplines. When they leave here, it’s very likely they’re going to be on a team. I think it’s true everywhere, but certainly in industry.”
In the past, he adds, “most of your education would be in your own department and mainly from your advisor. What’s different for these students is that they have seen on average 10 or 12 faculty members through the NRT program and interacted with them, seen them in class and visited their labs. So they see 10 or 12 presentation styles instead of one or two, for example. It’s clear that graduate students need more these days, and we are trying to provide that.”
Polymer science and engineering doctoral student Kwasny says he can see new skills already working for him, but for a Ph.D. student to take even an hour away from the research that will earn him a degree and launch his career was at first almost painful.
Kwasny points out, “When you’re so focused on finishing your research and getting the degree, you get caught up in that and it’s very, very hard to tear yourself away and make yourself take the time to focus on skills that are not directly related. When we visited a lab outside Boston for a day I had to say to myself, ‘I’m not going to do anything for my Ph.D. today. I’m going to do something for my professional career today.’ That was very, very difficult. But looking back on it, I’m really glad I did. It was at least as valuable as a day of research.”
Tew says, “The problems we need to solve today are much, much harder and you need a team to work on things like personalized health care and new medical devices. It’s not just metals and ceramics anymore. Most of biology involves soft materials like plastics and how they interact with human tissue. So you need people who understand soft materials to integrate devices; you need life scientists who understand biology.”
He adds, “As a polymer scientist, I did not get trained in what cartilage is like or its properties. But to do a knee replacement better today than yesterday, it will take a biologist who can work alongside me and vice versa. The future will happen in a smarter way because of this improved training for the next generation.”