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Graduate students report on need for interdisciplinary environmental research

An innovative Cornell program may offer a model for interdisciplinary environmental research in an academic system where research across departments is challenging at best, according to a paper published in the June issue of Bioscience and authored by Cornell graduate students.

Called the Biogeochemistry and Environmental Biocomplexity (BEB) program, it initially was funded in 2003 by a $3.3 million, five-year National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) grant, which provides support to universities for collaborative research that transcends traditional boundaries. The Cornell grant also awarded individual fellowships to 32 students.

The paper, authored by BEB graduate students, uses the BEB program as a model to discuss how to make interdisciplinary research possible in fields that require more collaboration across departments.

"We're trying to argue that integrative research is an important way to train future environmental problem solvers," said Jennifer Moslemi, the paper's lead author and a graduate student in Cornell's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the BEB program. "Environmental problems have enormous complexity. Scientists need to think more broadly and collaborate and communicate outside of their disciplines without compromising the integrity of their departments."

The BEB program includes students and faculty from eight departments, scientists from the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research located on Cornell's Ithaca campus and the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. It links students and researchers in biology, chemistry, physical and geological sciences to understand ecosystems and complex environmental interactions.

The program's strengths revolve around harnessing student initiative by giving them more control over their course of study, Moslemi said. Students have created interdisciplinary workshop courses that have included laboratory techniques, carbon mitigation strategies, effectively communicating research topics through the media and an annual workshop with nonacademic scientists to discuss such subjects as science ethics and policy.

BEB students also developed a multidisciplinary seminar series with visiting researchers from varied departments; organized an annual retreat for students and faculty to interact, brainstorm and evaluate graduate training and research; created a multidepartment graduate students association; and set up a small grants program that offers merit-based research funding of up to $4,000 per individual.

Two surveys of Cornell graduate students conducted by the paper's authors and the BEB program found that students participating in the program were more likely to seek advice on their research from faculty and graduate students in other departments and felt more satisfied with their exposure to research training, professional development, social events and material resources.

But the program faces challenges due to a lack of incentives in the current academic framework for pursuing collaborative research, the paper reported. "The incentive is to publish your own work, and collaborations are very time intensive," Moslemi said. For example, workshop courses yielded several large projects, but students struggled to find time to publish their results. Also, while the BEB's small grants have lessened financial pressures, from 2002 to 2006 only four out of 100 funded proposals had been jointly authored.

The paper also found that students lack exposure to nonacademic paths, despite a trend that shows increasing numbers of Ph.D.s pursuing nonacademic fields. While BEB students who receive IGERT fellowships can pursue a funded internship during their dissertation studies, few have found the time to pursue internships with private and public organizations.

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Blaine Friedlander