Interdisciplinary graduate programs give University distinction

Offers academic buffet for tailoring degree program, contributes to student employability

5/13/2014 - By: Mike Wolterbeek
kidd bioscience lab Associate Professor of biology Thomas Kidd, center, in his biosciences lab last year with Gunnar Newquist, a student in the Cell and Molecular Biology interdisciplinary graduate program and biology student Kirsti Walker, in the Bachelors/Masters Biotechnology program. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

The first person to earn a doctorate at the University of Nevada, Reno was a hydrogeologist. It was 1967. Roger Morrison worked his way through the University's first interdisciplinary graduate program, hydrogeology, which began in 1962. Now, the University has seven successful interdisciplinary programs in a variety of subjects relevant to today's workforce.

"Our interdisciplinary programs distinguish us from other U.S. universities," Kevin Carman, provost and executive vice president of the University of Nevada, Reno said. "The University has substantially more interdisciplinary graduate programs than most other research institutions, and almost one-third of our doctoral students come from these programs. Interdisciplinary programs benefit from synergistic partnerships across a range of programs at the University and DRI."

The interdisciplinary programs provide flexibility to graduate students with well-defined goals who may not fit into one of the established majors offered by the individual colleges at the University.

"It's like an academic buffet for students," Carman said. "They have considerable latitude in sculpting their degree program. Interdisciplinary grad programs also facilitate collaboration among faculty, which leads to greater research productivity."

For example, in the Hydrologic Sciences graduate program there are two degree tracks from which students may choose. In hydrology, they can focus their education on surface water hydraulics, watershed hydrology, water resources evaluations, water quality, geomorphology, and limnology. Specific areas of emphasis in hydrogeology, the second track, include groundwater contaminant transport, geochemical evolution of ground waters, nutrient transport processes, vadose zone hydrology, ground water resource evaluation and ground water modeling. Students can also earn a graduate certificate in international water resources.

Each of the other interdisciplinary programs have similar diverse offerings. Students have a tremendous range of subject options to study. The program offers students the opportunity to work on novel research that spans multiple disciplines and to make substantial contributions to their respective fields.

The successful hydrology program set the stage for more such programs, which grew from valuable research collaborations into interdisciplinary programs that produce well-rounded graduates entering the workforce. The seven programs have more than 250 students enrolled.

"Interdisciplinary programs provide the most effective means of addressing real-world challenges, such as big data interpretation, climate change, health care delivery, renewable energy development and global competitiveness," David Zeh, vice provost of graduate education, said. "Multidisciplinary graduate programs train students in complex, problem solving contexts that enable them to pursue productive careers in fields as diverse as business and community development, electrical and biomedical engineering, natural resource management and online journalism.

"As a land-grant campus with a diverse mix of academic units and professional schools, we are uniquely suited to building strength and national competitiveness through collaboration."

The programs grew organically rather than from a grand scheme. Their success is exemplified both in preparing students for the workforce and for building Nevada's workforce. All of Nevada's federal watermasters have graduated from the Hydrological Sciences program.

Hydrologic Sciences is one of the largest such programs in North America. The  program attracts many of its applicants from out-of-state, and "a large number of hydrology and hydrogeology students go on to work in Nevada, contributing to successful water management, which is important in the driest state in the lower 48," Laurel Saito, director of the program, said. "With climate change there will be even more water stresses in Nevada, requiring even more knowledge and solutions that can come through research and awareness."

The hydrology program has grown from a handful of students 50 years ago to nearly 50 students today, based in several departments, colleges, and programs at the University and Desert Research Institute, studying in dozens of specialties related to hydrologic sciences.

"We have strong ties with DRI, they have valuable training and research facilities and abilities," Marsha Read, former director of graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School at the University said. "These programs attract students with broad interests and the joint program gives them many more resources and opportunities."

The University's Graduate School promotes an environment in which interdisciplinary programs are conceived and assembled through the grassroots efforts of participating faculty, in an atmosphere where programs are allowed to blossom.

"These programs flourish when our faculty recognize instances to collaborate and create unique opportunities for graduate education," Carman said. "We will continue to strategically support and promote disciplinary excellence, which provides the foundation for signature interdisciplinary programs that make our university an attractive place for discovery and innovation."

Also important are collaborations outside of the University, such as with the Social Psychology program with its ties to institutions around the world, or the Atmospheric Science program with its strong collaboration with DRI. The research-based atmospherics program is offered through the University's Department of Physics in partnership with the DRI Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

Students pursue research in atmospheric chemistry, cloud and aerosol physics, instrument development, atmospheric optics and acoustics, mesoscale meteorology, numerical modeling, fire climatology and other topics. There are 30 faculty members from a variety of departments, such as natural resources and environmental sciences, mechanical engineering and health sciences from which the students can draw their knowledge.

The Molecular Biosciences program provides an integrated course of study for students seeking a degree in biomolecular-related research with two degree paths: Cell and Molecular Biology and Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology & Physiology. The program is the most popular of the seven, with nearly 70 graduate students in a broad range of biological and biomedical research areas.

The research faculty in these two departments together annually average $9 million in research-grant funding to support an extensive array of research projects, representing 41 percent of the total research grant funds at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. The Molecular Biosciences program is involved with three major multi-million dollar research initiatives, all Center of Biomedical Research Excellence projects funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology program promotes doctoral education in theoretical, experimental and applied aspects of ecology, evolution and conservation biology. Research strengths include population biology, behavioral ecology, plant responses to climate change, conservation of endangered species and restoration of natural ecosystems, landscape ecology and biogeography and limnology. Two incoming EECB students (for Fall 2014) were recently awarded highly competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships. Of the nine NSF Fellows that the University has had, seven of them have been in an interdisciplinary program, one in Social Psychology and six in EECB.

Environmental Sciences encompasses the fields of chemistry, geology, biology, ecology, physics, and human health and is focused on environmental chemistry, toxicology and ecological impacts of contaminants.

A variety of departments, programs and disciplines within the University, including Natural Resources and Environmental Science, Hydrology, Biochemistry, Nutrition, EECB and Atmospheric Sciences, collaborate with the Desert Research Institute and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for research and coursework in the environmental sciences graduate program.

The Social Psychology graduate program is one of the oldest social psychology programs in the country, more than 45 years old. The interdisciplinary focus allows students to experience a wide range of perspectives in the field that equips students with knowledge and understanding that prepares them for work in both academic and applied settings. The faculty has ties with colleagues and institutions around the world, including England, Spain, Scotland, the Netherlands, Australia, Russia, Japan and former Soviet countries. The extensive immersion in the field provides unmatched opportunities for learning and research, preparing students for post-graduation success.

At graduation in 1967, that first doctoral student, Roger Morrison, may have had to walk across the commencement stage as the lone doctoral student, but now there are more than 400 doctoral students, including three dozen interdisciplinary doctoral students walking the stage every year. At commencement this spring, the interdisciplinary graduate programs will award more than three dozen advanced degrees.

"About one-third of our doctoral students are in interdisciplinary programs," Provost Carman said. "They develop marketable skills that will serve them well in their careers; they can speak the language of many subjects in many industries."


Mostly Cloudy
66°
Currently