UMass Amherst Wins Nearly $3 Million to Train Students in Use of Soft Materials for Life Sciences

Kenneth Carter
Gregory Tew

AMHERST, Mass. – Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been awarded $2.975 million over five years through the National Science Foundation’s National Research Traineeship (NRT) program to train a group of graduate students from different disciplines in the use of polymers and other soft materials in the life sciences.

Polymer scientist Kenneth Carter, who co-directs the program with colleague Gregory Tew, says the NRT will engage 74 students over five years in polymer science and engineering, immunology, food science and several engineering fields. One goal is to explore new models for graduate education.

One of these is a concept known as T-shaped skills, where the vertical bar of the letter represents the depth of the student’s skills and expertise in a core discipline, while the horizontal bar represents his or her ability to communicate effectively with experts in other areas as well as with non-experts. Developed together, they allow a scientist to share and apply knowledge in areas other than in one’s core field. The program will also prepare them for the requirements of the 21st century global economy.

Carter and Tew say that increasingly, research in modern science is not an individual effort but a collective one, demanding teams of people with many different skill sets to accomplish objectives. This is especially true in industry and government labs where work is often performed collaboratively with scientists and engineers from very different backgrounds.

This approach has had proven success, yet until now collaborative skills were rarely taught at the undergraduate and graduate level in a deliberate, organized way. It is time to change that, say Carter, Tew and colleagues. “Students need to be trained to communicate, lead and participate effectively in diverse teams,” they state, which means learning to effectively convey their ideas to others and work toward common goals.

Students who successfully complete the two-year training program will receive a graduate certificate in Soft Materials for Life Sciences. “The program is designed to serve both master’s and doctoral students in the science and engineering workforce,” Carter notes, “and many of them will direct their careers beyond research or academia to work in industry, government and teaching-intensive professional jobs.”

For the UMass Amherst NRT, the overall research focus is at the intersection of soft materials, especially polymers, and their application in the life sciences, with an emphasis on sensor design and immunology. The program is one of the first campus-wide collaborations with the newly formed Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS). Training will involve interdisciplinary studies and a variety of other experiences to address goals in life sciences such as developing drug delivery methods and personalized health monitoring devices.

The grant also includes one-year training stipends for 28 of the students. Nine researchers will serve as core faculty from six departments: polymer science and engineering, food science, veterinary and animal sciences, mechanical and industrial engineering, chemical engineering and electrical and computer engineering. A total of 27 other faculty members will serve as teachers and mentors.

Carter adds that this program features an intensive “Year Two Experience,” which combines an interdisciplinary course in technical topics related to the research theme, plus professional development workshops, instruction in laboratory techniques and other training. Students will also study scientific and engineering management and choose from electives such as science policy, ethics and responsible research conduct, business for scientists and engineers, and communicating science.

Connections to industry are built into the program through IALS and will benefit the trainees, as well. “This training is essential for preparing highly skilled students for the modern economy of the 21st century,” he says.

Because the NRT program at UMass Amherst is a well-thought-out experiment in redesigning approaches to graduate science education, the organizers say they have built into it a strong evaluation and feedback component to ensure that its methods and effectiveness are measureable and will be tested.