AMHERST, Mass.—Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have been awarded about $2.98 million over five years through the National Science Foundation's National Research Traineeship program.
The funding is aimed to train a group of graduate students from different disciplines in the use of polymers and other soft materials in the life sciences.
Polymer scientist Kenneth Carter, who co-directs the program with colleague Gregory Tew, said the NRT will engage 74 students throughout the five years in polymer science and engineering, immunology, food science and several engineering fields.
One of their goals is to explore new models for graduate education, including a concept known as T-shaped skills. This concept is where the vertical bar of the letter represents the depth of the student's skills and expertise in a core discipline, UMass said, while the horizontal bar represents his or her ability to communicate effectively with experts and non-experts in other areas. These components developed together allow a scientist to share and apply knowledge in areas other than in one's core field, the school said. Additionally, the program will prepare them for the requirements of the 21st century global economy.
Carter and Tew said that increasingly, research in modern science is not an individual effort, but a collective one. This demands teams with many different skill sets to accomplish objectives, which is especially true in industry and government labs where work is often performed collaboratively with scientists and engineers from very different backgrounds, the school claimed.
UMass said that while this approach has had success, until now collaborative skills were rarely taught at the undergraduate and graduate level in a deliberate, organized way.
“Students need to be trained to communicate, lead and participate effectively in diverse teams,” Carter and Tew said in a statement, indicating students need to learn to convey ideas effectively to others and work toward common goals.
Students who successfully complete the two-year training program will receive a graduate certificate in Soft Materials for Life Sciences.
“The program is designed to serve both master's and doctoral students in the science and engineering work force,” Carter said, “and many of them will direct their careers beyond research or academia to work in industry, government and teaching-intensive professional jobs.”
For the UMass Amherst NRT, the overall research focus is at the intersection of soft materials, especially polymers, and their application in the life sciences, with an emphasis on sensor design and immunology, the university said. Additionally, the program is one of the first campus-wide collaborations with the newly formed Institute of Applied Life Sciences. Training will involve interdisciplinary studies and a variety of other experiences to address goals in life sciences such as developing drug delivery methods and personalized health monitoring devices.
UMass said the grant includes one-year training stipends for 28 students. Nine researchers will serve as core faculty from six departments: polymer science and engineering, food science, veterinary and animal sciences, mechanical and industrial engineering, chemical engineering and electrical and computer engineering; with a total of 27 other faculty members to serve as teachers and mentors.
Carter added that the program features an intensive “Year Two Experience,” which combines an interdisciplinary course in technical topics related to the research theme, plus professional development workshops, instruction in laboratory techniques and other training. Students will study scientific and engineering management and choose from electives such as science policy, ethics and responsible research conduct, business for scientists and engineers, and communicating science.
Connections to industry are built into the program through IALS and will benefit the trainees, as well.
“This training is essential for preparing highly skilled students for the modern economy of the 21st century,” Carter said.