IGERT PhD program sees last class

by Lily Fagin | 10/2/12 10:00pm

The Polar Environmental Change Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship at Dartmouth welcomed its last cohort of fellows, who will study polar changes and their implications, this fall. While the program's grant from the National Science Foundation will expire in August 2015, the last class of the two-year program is scheduled to graduate in 2014.

When the IGERT program ends, its interdisciplinary approach to graduate studies will have to be institutionalized within the College, although the details of this transition remain unclear, according to environmental studies professor and head of the IGERT program Ross Virginia.

The IGERT program, which grew from a grant awarded to the College in August 2008, aims to encourage interdisciplinary studies by bringing together PhD students in the fields of ecology, evolutionary biology, earth sciences and engineering to study environmental change, Virginia said.

"The nature of a graduate education is that you need to become an expert in an area or a field, so the challenges today are developing breadth of understanding," Virginia said. "IGERT gives students an opportunity to interact with colleagues they wouldn't normally see if they were working within their own discipline."

In addition to emphasizing an interdisciplinary approach, IGERT trains students to effectively communicate their findings to different types of people.

"Being challenged to explain my research to people who are not within my subfield has made my research stronger," second-year fellow Julia Bradley-Cook said.

Training scientists to clearly present their findings to a general population and to each other is essential in modern academia to justify investing in scientific research, Virginia said.

The focus on communication fits into the program's broader goal of encouraging graduates to "be more collaborative, learn together and shape the research in a way that's more relevant to people and society," Virginia said.

The IGERT program is a two-year program composed of two core courses one in the first semester and one in the second semester and a five-week trip to Greenland to conduct field work, according to IGERT program manager Lee McDavid. The remaining time following coursework completion is used for individual research, fellow Thomas Overly said.

After IGERT's grant from the National Science Foundation expires, a PhD program addressing concerns like sustainability science or tribal rights while incorporating many aspects of the polar environmental change program would continue IGERT's mission of connecting science to society despite the lack of the IGERT program, IGERT fellow Marcus Welker said.

The advantages of an interdisciplinary approach increase the likelihood that the College will maintain such a program, according to McDavid.

In place of a centralized program like the traineeship, College departments and institutes could incorporate successful IGERT program elements, making the transition period "a very fertile time for talking about these new opportunities for interdisciplinary education at all levels at Dartmouth," Virginia said.

Dartmouth has an extensive history of teaching polar studies, Virginia said. Originally, the program built upon existing connections to the Arctic, including the U.S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory and the Dickey Center for International Understanding's Center for Arctic Studies. The Dickey Center currently invites polar scientists and researchers to deliver lectures and offers IGERT students a chance to speak with them before or after main lectures, an opportunity that may continue following IGERT's discontinuation, fellow Laura Levy said.

In addition to existing connections to polar science, Dartmouth's emphasis on the liberal arts facilitates interdisciplinary work at the graduate level, which also helps the school compete with larger state schools in attracting top PhD students, Virginia said.

This legacy has earned IGERT a large following, according to fellow Kristin Schild.

Virginia said he hopes that Dartmouth will preserve the interdisciplinary model using its own resources after IGERT's conclusion.

Dickey's appointment of a new director and the College's search for a new president have created a transition period during which the College can decide whether to emphasize the connection between graduate studies in science and policy, Virginia said.

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