New Ph.D. program lets discovery define the path

phd program

April 11, 2017

The OHSU School of Medicine is transforming its Ph.D. program to better prepare aspiring scientists for a changing career landscape.

Currently, the school has 16 biomedical Ph.D. programs serving 225 students with a proscribed curriculum for each program. The 13-member Creative IDEAS Committee has proposed a new approach.

Chaired by Robert Duvoisin, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology, OHSU School of Medicine, under the leadership of Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies, OHSU School of Medicinie, the committee envisions a program that prioritizes critical thinking, communication and professional development, combined with a flexible curriculum to encourage interdisciplinary research. The new program would build on current research strengths and be flexible to encompass new areas of study.

"Nationally, the landscape of scientific practice is changing," Dr. Duvoisin said. "Scientists need interdisciplinary approaches to tackle complex problems, more students are seeking non-academic careers and traditional funding streams are limited. OHSU must be able to respond to the new areas of research that basic science leaders are bringing to the university, better accommodate the institute model that has been fueled by philanthropy and remain competitive for the very best students. All of these drivers influenced the need to transform."

The new Ph.D. program will

  • Shift from a proscribed program to a flexible, individualized curriculum.
  • Shift from one mentor to a team of mentors 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 having 16 independent Ph.D. programs toward fewer, interdisciplinary programs.

creative IDEASLetting discovery define the path

The new Ph.D. program will let discovery define the path rather than the path defining discovery. The concept evolved, like any other scientific process, from observation.

Katie Lebold, for example, researched the interaction of Vitamin E and other nutrients during fetal development for her master's degree in nutrition at Oregon State University. In the M.D./Ph.D. program at OHSU School of Medicine, she joined the lab of David Jacoby, M.D., professor of medicine, OHSU School of Medicine, vice chair for research in the Department of Medicine and director of the M.D./Ph.D. Training Program, assisting in his study of how immune cells interact with nerves in the airway to trigger asthma.

But when she wanted to explore the intersection of asthma and maternal-fetal interactions, the coursework she needed didn't fit into a neat box. She ended up in the Biomedical Engineering Graduate Program, not because she had an engineering project but because Interim Department Chair Owen McCarty, Ph.D., understood that his role was to train her how to think, not dictate what she learned.

Dr. McCarty helped her jump the bureaucratic hurdles to take the interdisciplinary coursework she needed to pursue her interest, including working with Dr. Jacoby to get him a biomedical engineering appointment so that Lebold could do her Ph.D. in his lab. The new Ph.D. program will remove the hurdles, allowing students to craft their course of study according to the knowledge needed to answer their question, even when that question changes.

"The question you start with is very different from the question you end up with," Lebold said. "More and more, science is so complex. You need so many skills and touch on so many areas. It's hard to be binned into one predefined program."

Builds on strengths, builds up community

The new program will also build on faculty strengths, encourage faculty involvement across disciplines and departments and allow faculty to teach to their expertise and research interests.

For students, the program will offer a rigorous and unique education with high expectations and milestones to ensure progress and the opportunity to work at the leading edge of their field. The program will also support students by building a diverse and evolving community around them of peers and mentors.

"While there are aspects of scientific discovery that are an individual pursuit, we know that in today's research workplaces, collaboration and teamwork are equally essential," said Dr. Fryer. "We want to foster those skills and maintain a rigorous training by building a PhD education framework that supports that."

The Graduate Program Steering Committee will initiate next steps by convening committees on curriculum, journal clubs, admission, mentorship and milestones with the intention of submitting the new Ph.D. program for accreditation in fall 2017. The first class of entering students would be fall 2019 at the earliest.

April 26 event: "A Ph.D. for Tomorrow's Scientist: Where discovery defines the path" 

Allison Fryer, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate studies, OHSU School of Medicine and members of the Creative IDEAS Committee will present the vision for a new Ph.D. program and take questions. April 26, 2017, 4-5 p.m., OHSU Auditorium. View/add to your calendar. (OHSU login required)


Pictured above: Creative IDEAS Committee members. Back row from left: David Edwards, Robert Duvoisin (chair), Steven Bedrick, Owen McCarty. Front row from left: Jackie Wirz, Tawyna Peterson, Jessica Walter, Peter Kurre. Not pictured: Bill Hersh, Teresa Nicolson, Diane Stadler, Matt Thayer.