Transformed Ph.D. program cleared for launch

Administrators now sought to help build and run the new approach

July 3, 2018

A transformed Ph.D. program will soon launch in the OHSU School of Medicine thanks to the work of leaders, faculty and students to create a more flexible, multidisciplinary approach that lets discovery define the path.

The program design has now been approved by the School of Medicine Graduate and Faculty Councils and the OHSU Faculty Senate. It will undergo external review this fall for accreditation purposes, with a report made to the provost. Programs under the Program in Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (PMCB) umbrella will participate: Cancer Biology, Cell and Developmental Biology, Physiology and Pharmacology, Genetics, Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and Biochemistry, but the program is flexible to include all faculty in all programs and all courses in the new program are open to every student.

Three part-time administrative positions are now posted in the School of Medicine to finish building and running the program. The deadline to apply for these positions is July 16. View position descriptions, application directions and committee structure.

"We know that the key to success in the scientific world is adaptability," said Dean Sharon Anderson. "I am proud of our Graduate Studies leaders, faculty and students who came together to take the best of what we have done for years, fill gaps that we realized we had, and come up with a structure that frees up students and faculty to work more synergistically to move biomedical science forward."Eileen Torres with Dean Sharon Anderson

The transformed Ph.D. program is taking hold just as the first cohort of medical students to experience the full YOUR M.D. curriculum graduated in June, further establishing OHSU on the leading edge of curriculum reform in the health professions.

Designed for today's biomedical career landscape

The transformed program prioritizes critical thinking, communication skills and professional development, combined with an individualized curriculum to encourage interdisciplinary research. The new program builds on current research strengths and can flex to encompass new areas of study. It is designed with the evolving biomedical career landscape in mind. Today, more students are seeking non-academic careers, traditional funding streams are limited and the role of philanthropy is even more important.

Allison Fryer at hooding ceremony 2018"I feel a lot of gratitude," said Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies who shepherded the program through multiple reviews. "Change is exciting, but it's also hard. I am grateful to faculty and students who leaned in and brought their experience, expertise and commitment to our graduate students to create the best program we could offer."

Dr. Fryer and then-Dean Mark Richardson first convened faculty to discuss the future of the Ph.D. program in spring 2015. This discussion led to the Creative IDEAS Committee, whose report drove design of the new Ph.D. program.

Faculty and student committee take on program design

Chaired by Robert Duvoisin, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology, OHSU School of Medicine committee members included Steven Bedrick, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and affiliated with the Center for Spoken Language Understanding; David Edwards, Ph.D. '17, who studied cancer biology; Bill Hersh, M.D., professor and chair of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology; Peter Kurre, M.D., professor of pediatrics; Owen McCarty, Ph.D., interim chair of biomedical engineering; Teresa Nicolson, Ph.D., professor of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery and affiliated with the Vollum Institute; Tawnya Peterson, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental and biomolecular systems, Institute of Environment Health; Diane Stadler, Ph.D., R.D.N., L.D., assistant professor of medicine; Matt Thayer, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology; Jessica Walter, M.A., director, Division of Management; and Jackie Wirz, Ph.D., assistant dean for graduate studies student affairs.

The new Ph.D. program will:

  • Shift from a proscribed program to a flexible, individualized curriculum.
  • Shift from one mentor to include mentor teams to meet each student's academic, research and peer learning and support needs.
  • Encourage engagement in seminars inside and outside a student's field of research with a tailored plan that includes a range of opportunities for acquiring knowledge yet a common focus on communication, critical thinking, teamwork, management and leadership.
  • Offer a series of basic, core content instruction in year one, as occurs now, but then also offer "just-in-time" courses as students' research and skill requirements evolve throughout their later years.
  • Provide formal instruction in professional and communication skills rather than ad-hoc acquisition of these essential competencies.
  • Move away from 16 independent Ph.D. programs toward fewer, interdisciplinary programs, a change that will occur over time.

Catalyzing discovery through scientific neighborhoods

Eileen Torres, a soon-to-be fifth-year Ph.D. student in behavioral neuroscience, said she's particularly interested in how the new program fosters cross-discipline connections to create a "scientific neighborhood" where students can engage with anyone – faculty, postdocs or other students – with similar research interests.

PhD committee

"This program has the potential to revitalize graduate education here at OHSU," said Torres, who gave input as a Graduate Program Steering Committee member, "by honing in on our strengths and allowing room for individual-specific differences in curriculum so that students can learn what they need to when it makes sense to know it."

She also likes the team approach to mentorship, the focus on soft skills like career development and the increased consistency across programs, which will further support collaboration. And she says the new approach condenses curriculum, allowing students to "dive into the good stuff – the research" sooner and possibly complete their degree sooner.

Expanding on our successes

Georgiana Purdy, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology (MMI), and director of the MMI Graduate Program, OHSU School of Medicine, said she is glad to see the new program expand aspects of the school's current approach that have worked well to better prepare all Ph.D. students.

"National discussion about graduate training reflects a greater appreciation for the alternative careers that a number of our graduates take," Dr. Purdy said. "The new approach builds on the successes of programs like MMI in creating interdisciplinary paths of study and provides additional opportunities to gain skills that will prepare students for alternative careers."

Dr. Purdy and Dr. Fryer view faculty involvement as critical to the next steps. This includes establishing the research hubs or communities that will replace the current department-centered programs over time; formalizing a steering committee for governance of the program, and completing creation of the core curriculum.

PhD transformation flow

If accreditation proceeds as anticipated, the program will begin admitting students next winter to start in fall 2019. Current Ph.D. students, numbering 225 in 2017-18, will continue in their current programs while the new program phases in. PMCB, the current gateway to many OHSU School of Medicine Ph.D. programs, would stop taking students in fall 2019.

Photos (top to bottom)

Revitalizing: Eileen Torres, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in behavioral neuroscience, is excited for the cross-discipline connections the new program will foster. The new design "has the potential to revitalize graduate education here at OHSU," she said. Pictured with Dean Sharon Anderson at a Collaborative Research Leadership Group meeting in June.

A transformed program: Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies, OHSU School of Medicine, stewarded the development of a transformed Ph.D. program through multiple reviews. Graduate Studies boasts 784 students in Ph.D., masters, bachelors and certificate programs.

Making it happen: The Creative IDEAS Committee led the shaping of the new Ph.D. program. Members included (front row) Drs. Jackie Wirz, Peter Kurre, Tawyna Peterson, Owen McCarty; (middle row) Dr. Robert Duvoisin, Dr. Steven Bedrick, Jessica Walter, and, (back) Dr. David Edwards.