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April 4, 2002

Grant will bring chemical scientists together

News and Information

An unusual grant for the professional development of graduate students in the chemical sciences will both unify and broaden their experience. The grant will help them collaborate with scientists from related areas and will also introduce them to the world of jobs beyond academia.

“This is an exciting breakthrough,” says Jody Nyquist, associate dean of the Graduate School and facilitator of the grant from The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. “Students will have unique opportunities to connect their work with that of others, and to interact in ways that make future connections likely.”

The chairs of four departments in the chemical sciences worked together to craft the grant proposal. They include Paul Hopkins in chemistry, Alan Weiner in biochemistry, Eric Stuve in chemical engineering and Rajendra Bordia in materials science and engineering.

“I believe there’s room for a modest amount of broadening in the Ph.D. program,” Hopkins says. “The way we do education now, in my field, people are likely to know a little about the research of people on either side of them in a group. They’re likely to know little about the work of graduate students assigned to other faculty in their own department, and nothing at all about graduate student work in related areas in other departments.”

One way of overcoming these barriers will be a series of dissertation retreats. Modeled loosely after similar conferences at Berkeley, the retreat participants will be carefully selected to ensure that their research embraces common themes from across the chemical sciences. Each workshop will involve 12 “core” students who are no more than two years away from earning their doctorate. Other participants will include “observer” students, who are two to three years away from their degree and one or two “consultant” students about to finish their degree. Two to four faculty members will serve as observers and consultants.

Most of the retreat will involve students’ presentations of their dissertation work. The challenge will be to present the essence of the work to a highly educated but non-expert audience. The group will discuss the student’s work and identify connections among the various projects. Indeed, a formal part of the structure of the workshop will be to explore interrelationships among the topics presented.

Nyquist and the department chairs are hopeful that the results of such retreats will be long lasting. Berkeley reports that collaborations among participants in their workshops continue to occur for many years thereafter.

The chemical sciences are ripe for this kind of interdigitation, according to Hopkins. “I’ve watched as biochemistry has become more molecular, while at the same time chemists have been seeking understanding at the atomic level and larger, so there’s more convergence of these fields in the past two decades.”

Stuve believes the future must involve more collaboration. “We need students to see the common theme that runs throughout chemical sciences. By having a combined approach we can show more effectively how advances made in one area, say materials science, will apply to another area, say biochemistry. While students will still focus on a particular topic, they will more readily see how fundamental breakthroughs can help many different applications.”

Another major component of the project will involve a monthly seminar program in which students will be able to explore possible career paths and the necessary preparation for those paths. “Students need to be exposed to how business and industry, government, and nonprofit organizations work,” says Nyquist, “and the best way to do that is to bring in people from those sectors to talk with them. Many students will realize that management will play a huge role in their lives if they work for a corporation, and they may come to understand that they themselves may need management skills. A growing number of companies need scientists who are also skilled as management decision makers.”

Nyquist is conducting a survey of local UW doctoral alumni in the chemical sciences, in the hope of creating relationships between them and current students in the program. “Students will learn from these people that many of society’s most crucial problems are so complex that the deep analytic skills of a Ph.D. are increasingly valued outside universities,” she says.

Hopkins points out that in chemistry, about 80 percent of those holding doctorates are already working outside of academic settings. “But chemistry departments have only recently acknowledged that a minority of their students will end up in careers in the academy. We can do a better job of making them aware of their career options.”

Connecting the experience in the dissertation retreats and seminars will be a Web site, which will contain listings of jobs across the chemical sciences, postdoctoral information across the disciplines, as well as a summary of research opportunities in the chemical sciences at the UW and a discussion board for students.

The work occurring under the Dreyfus grant follows up on several of the important themes of The Graduate School’s “Re-envisioning the Ph.D. project,” which began in 1998 under Nyquist’s leadership (see http://depts.washington.edu/envision). The challenge, as many people inside academia as well as in the private sector know, is to make doctoral education somewhat broader and more relevant to society’s needs, without diluting the in-depth analysis or greatly increasing the time necessary to complete a degree.

“The basic process by which a student receives the Ph.D. degree has not changed much in the last 100 or so years,” says Bordia, chair of materials science and engineering. “As a result of this very successful process, we educate graduate students to initiate and conduct successful research. However, the range of skills needed to work in today’s environment has increased significantly. This program will address some of those needs.”