Securing Resources to Attract the Best

The process of educating graduate students in the various sciences is, in essence, the creation of new scientists from the ground up, and the benefits extend not only to the students but also to the university that trains them and to the country as a whole.

That principle underlies three new efforts in the UT Knoxville College of Arts and Sciences to enhance graduate training in the sciences. Each effort has a different look, feel, and scale, but at the core they share a similar vision for a college and a university that offers unrivaled opportunities to its graduate students.

At the intersection of all three programs is Cynthia Peterson, professor and head of the college’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology. She’s the associate director of the National Institute for Molecular and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), the director of Scalable Computing And Leading Edge Innovative Technologies (SCALE-IT), and the Program for Excellence and Equity in Research (PEER).

Scaling up

SCALE-ITSitting squarely at the heart of the future of science is interdisciplinary training and research, and SCALE-IT is designed to foster that spanning of boundaries in a specially recruited cohort of graduate students.

The students in SCALE-IT, chosen in part for geographic and scientific diversity, will receive more than the usual graduate assistantship: they will receive specialized training in a variety of disciplines over the course of their first 2 years at UT Knoxville.

Among the unique offerings is participation in the campuswide interdisciplinary graduate minor in computational science, which links programs in the College of Arts and Sciences with others in the College of Engineering to help students learn how to use high-performance computing resources like UT Knoxville’s Kraken supercomputer effectively in conjunction with their research.

But their training will not focus only on science and research. As a group they’ll spend time in extracurricular efforts that include specially designed seminars in science communication and professional development.

According to Peterson and Harry Richards, SCALE-IT’s program manager, the unique combination of opportunities is bringing top students to UT Knoxville who might not otherwise have considered East Tennessee as a place to complete their studies, which became clear at an early spring meeting for program applicants.

“For some of them, [UT Knoxville] was really a backup school. That was pretty obvious,” said Richards. “They didn’t realize that UT was so much more than they expected it to be.”

SCALE-IT is funded by an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), a highly sought-after grant from the National Science Foundation. At more than $3 million, it provides students with full tuition and fees, along with $30,000 annual stipends and additional travel and research funding.

Removing roadblocks, enhancing access

PEERpening the doors of science to traditionally underrepresented minorities is a major undertaking, but in order to increase the numbers of minority scientists, the number of minority graduate students in top science programs must first increase.

That’s where PEER, a $3.4-million program funded by the National Institutes of Health, comes in. Its focus is on helping create a pathway for minority students—in some fields this also includes women of any ethnicity—to enter UT Knoxville’s top programs.

“Students coming from historically black colleges and universities may not have had as much opportunity to spend time in the lab, getting exposed to the research environment,” said Peterson. “With PEER, we have an avenue that helps them overcome some of the stumbling blocks that can keep them from achieving success on the doctoral level.”

Though funding under the grant was received only last February, Peterson and others began reaching out to students at minority-targeted scientific meetings like the Society for American Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAIS) as early as November 2008 and by visiting campuses like North Carolina A&T.

Along the way, they’ve had a chance to talk about the unique aspects of the PEER program. Students in PEER can take part in seminars on the basics of professional development in the various fields of science and in science communication. The program provides students with full tuition, fees, and $25,000 stipends for the first 2 years of their graduate study.

Advancing opportunity in an advanced environment

SCALE-IT and PEER both focus on students’ first 2 years of graduate education. By their third year, students are expected to be supported by funding from their mentors’ grants. One large new research center, however, is offering students advanced graduate assistantships in an arena where they will be exposed to an array of the world’s top scientists.

NIMBiosThe National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, or NIMBioS, is a $16-million center at UT Knoxville funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Lou Gross, who holds appointments in the both the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. NIMBioS will bring hundreds of scientists to Knoxville each year for meetings and working groups on topics in computational and mathematical biology. That level of support to researchers around the world will require coordination, and that’s where UT Knoxville graduate students will play a role.

Peterson, who also serves as an associate director for NIMBioS, says the assistantships will offer a unique opportunity to students in any graduate program at UT Knoxville who have shown particular skill in either the hardware or the software required to conduct the work.

“It is giving students a unique professional-development opportunity,” she said. “They’ll be able to interact regularly with top-tier scientists from all over the world. I can’t think of anything that’s like this anywhere.”

NIMBioS has such appeal for graduate students that a number of the students who have applied for SCALE-IT and PEER also have expressed interest in the advanced assistantship programs in NIMBioS for when they complete their respective 2-year fellowships.

The tie that binds all three of the programs is a shared goal of strengthening the university’s ability to attract the nation’s best graduate students to UT Knoxville and to programs in the College of Arts and Sciences. Combining generous stipends and research funding with a unique program structure and exposure to top faculty members, these programs are building a base of highly productive graduate students who will populate departments across the college and the university.

—Jay Mayfield