$3 Million Grant Will Reshape Graduate Education in the Life Sciences

Test Tubes
Test Tubes

A faculty team from UVA’s College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences has received a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to expand research training and career development for graduate students in the University’s life sciences programs. Awarded on the basis of a proposal developed by biology faculty members Laura Galloway, Deborah Roach and Edmund Brodie and associate professor of psychology Jessica Connelly, the grant will provide five years of support for a new program called EXPAND that will create a new graduate curriculum, provide career-training for students interested in opportunities outside of academia and broaden the diversity of the graduate student population.

Reimagining the Life Sciences Curriculum

Today, virtually every discipline in the life sciences, which includes fields like biology, biochemistry, behavioral sciences and the environmental sciences, is involved in research aimed at understanding the phenotype -- the collection of an organism's characteristics determined by its genes, its development and its environment and that affects everything from its size and its behavior to its response to things like disease and medication.

Advances in the field of genomics and in the power of computers to solve increasingly complex problems have led to a rate of change and discovery in the life sciences that is accelerating rapidly, but the faculty team that developed the EXPAND program felt that the traditional approach to educating graduate students isn’t keeping pace, and it isn’t preparing scientists to take on subjects like the phenotype that requires them to understand how their work affects or is affected by research happening in other scientific fields.

“Life Sciences has grown so much in the last four or five decades,” said Edmund Brodie, B.F.D. Runk Professor in Botany and one of the program’s four creators. “It’s an enormous field now, and we end up training people in really focused skill sets. This program is a way to bring all these different fields together.”

One objective of the EXPAND program will be to add coursework to the life sciences curriculum that helps students understand how their work fits into a range of interrelated scientific disciplines involved in research concerning the concept of the phenotype. Students will also have the opportunity to work with faculty advisors outside of their discipline to create opportunities to share insights and explore opportunities for collaboration across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

“We can’t do siloed science anymore,” said Jessica Connelly, a co-creator of EXPAND whose research is focused on genetics and genomics. “It’s fine to learn something at a very deep level and to be an expert in it, but you need to take that expertise and then you need to apply it to many different things. A lot of us in science were raised to just do our science, and it’s only been in the last 15 years or so that people have started to acknowledge that when groups of scientists who come from different areas work together we do better science.”

A partnership with UVA’s School for Data Sciences, will also introduce students to a broad range of research methods and data management tools to make them aware of new tools and best practices that they might not encounter in a traditional curriculum.

A New Model for Graduate Education

The EXPAND program’s creators are also finding that while the training they offer graduate students in the science may be important it may not meet the needs of the job markets those students will face when they graduate — especially if they’re interested in non-academic careers.

To address that challenge, EXPAND will collaborate with UVA’s Career Center to establish a career-oriented approach to training that exposes students to a wide range of career options in the life sciences and provides students with opportunities and funding to integrate internships into their graduate studies.

“I think this is a great opportunity for this program to create something new,” Laura Galloway, EXPAND creator and UVA’s Commonwealth Professor of Biology said. “We’re tapping into [the Career Center’s] non-academic professional networks, and that’s an avenue of career development that’s not typically available to graduate students.”

“Only 11% of all life sciences PhD students enter faculty positions, and many students are not interested in an academic career, yet historically, graduate programs have not encouraged students to explore the breadth of professional options that their training provides,” said Deborah Roach, EXPAND creator and chair of UVA’s Department of Biology.  “Most Universities, like UVA, do an excellent job at guiding undergraduates in their career choices, and EXPAND will extend these career programs to PhD students.”

Another benefit of adding a career-development component to graduate education is that it has a positive impact on the diversity of the student population.

Creating opportunities to bring diversity into the sciences has been a challenge, Galloway said. UVA is good at retaining the students it has, she said, but it needs to improve the methods it uses to recruit new graduates. To respond to that challenge, EXPAND will employ more active recruiting methods that will provide opportunities and funding for students in the graduate program who come from underrepresented populations to reach out to prospects and to work with them through the application process — a strategy that could help make a graduate degree from UVA accessible to students who wouldn’t otherwise see it as a practical career path or a welcoming environment.

“We’re going to do a lot of recruiting,” Connelly said. “We’re going to bring graduate students on board who want to see a more diverse community in science, and I can tell you that the students I interact with are interested in this. This is what they want.”

After researching the literature on graduate recruiting efforts, the EXPAND team also found evidence that adding career development to graduate training makes programs more attractive to underrepresented minorities and socioeconomic groups that need to see graduate education as a practical step toward better job opportunities and not just a path to more education. The team felt it was a key part of the solution.

“By adding that to the grant proposal,” Galloway said. “We had a very solid reason to think that we could make a difference.”