UGA reimagines graduate school education

The University of Georgia is giving entering graduate students in the life sciences one of the nation’s broadest range of research opportunities through its redesigned and expanded Integrated Life Sciences program.

More than 50 students recently started their studies in the relaunched program, which allows them to gain hands-on experience in three labs before selecting a major professor and research focus. The students can choose those labs from among a slate of more than 200 faculty members and 14 participating doctoral programs in four different colleges.

Nancy Manley, director of the program and a professor of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, explained that the remodeled ILS program expands upon the concept of umbrella programs, in which multiple departments partner on graduate recruitment. Students in the ILS program can rotate through labs in fields as disparate as entomology, biochemistry, infectious diseases and plant biology, for example, or explore interdisciplinary topics such as cancer, climate change, evolutionary biology or neurosciences.

“Even though the idea of an umbrella program has been around a long time, ILS, as it is now incarnated, is a really new way of thinking about graduate education,” Manley said. “It’s really about breaking down those departmental lines and saying, ‘Look at the science these people are doing.’ You may be interested in drug discovery, but you may be able to take your interest and apply it in a cellular biology lab.”

With rotations in three laboratories during the first semester, the program gives students insights into the full range of research options in the life sciences at UGA, said Allen Moore, Distinguished Research Professor and head of the department of genetics.

“The problem with graduate education in the U.S. is that we are stuck with a format that was invented in the 1950s when we had botany and zoology. That is not what modern scientists do,” Moore said. “What we really do is use techniques from all over the biological sciences and use model organisms anywhere from plants to insects to microbes. We’re not stuck in those departments any more.”

In addition to the laboratory rotations, the program puts a first-semester focus on professional development and skills that can be broadly applied in different fields. ILS students spend time in the classroom learning how to read and evaluate the scientific literature, considering questions of research ethics and exploring career options inside and outside of academia.

“By the end of the semester, they are now thinking like a graduate student and a scientist and not an undergraduate,” Manley said. “Making that a conscious transition is something that is unique to our program.”

In the spring, the students begin working directly with the professor and department in which they will be degree candidates.

Manley said that students are responding positively to the wide variety of options and often discover new areas within which to apply their interests. “The students view this as an opportunity to make an informed choice, not a chance to put off that choice,” Manley said.

Nathan Beattie, who joined the program this fall, said he was attracted to the possibility of trying out different laboratories before he chose his specific field of study.

“I’m really interested in so many different things in the field of science-stem cells, cancer, glycobiology. I’m just fascinated by so many things,” said Beattie, who received his undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Washington State University. “The ILS program gave me the opportunity to try all of them and focus my career goals.”

So far, the program has been effective at building bridges, both among the students who soon disperse throughout the university and among the professors, who are discovering new opportunities for collaboration.

The university first adopted a limited umbrella life sciences program six years ago, but the approach was more advanced this year as research skills courses were added. Manley credits the program’s redesign and expansion to leaders in the departments of genetics, cellular biology, biochemistry and molecular biology and infectious diseases, who were the first to agree to recruit all of their graduate students through the ILS program.

Other Tier 1 graduate programs, where all students begin their studies through the ILS program, include bioinformatics and neuroscience. (For the fall 2015 entering class, the department of pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences will join the Tier 1 programs.) Tier 2 programs, which maintain most of their recruitment through their department, are chemistry, entomology, marine sciences, microbiology, physiology and pharmacology, plant biology and poultry science.

This year, the class filled quickly and the cohort of students included a Fulbright Scholar and Gates Scholar. The program is primed to increase the class sizes over time, Manley said.

“The Integrated Life Sciences program provides unparalleled opportunities to some of the world’s most promising graduate students,” said Pamela Whitten, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “The collaboration among the faculty and departments that has enabled its expansion has been exemplary, and it helps position UGA as a leader in graduate education.”

First posted: Sept. 28, 2014