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Re-Imagining the Graduate Student Experience: How GPILS Keeps Up With the Times

Friday, March 29, 2013


Graduate programs in life sciences are under more pressure than ever to train young investigators in new and meaningful ways. Once they complete their degrees, graduates face stiff competition from veteran researchers for limited research funding and career opportunities in academia. The flat federal science budget and the dim prospects that this will improve anytime soon endangers the success of young biomedical researchers and threatens to wipe out a generation of new investigators. Graduate programs, therefore, must remain agile and forward-thinking in educating young scientists. The Graduate Program in Life Sciences (GPILS) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (SOM) is working continuously to meet the diverse needs of its students. 

As a relatively new program—it was formally established in 2005—GPILS embraces innovative methodologies for preparing its students for science careers. Led by Dudley Strickland, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Director of the SOM’s Center for Vascular and Inflammatory Diseases, and Professor in the Department of Surgery; Tom McHugh, Director and Academic ProgramsAdministrator; and a number of highly dedicated faculty program directors and staff members, GPILS employs an integrated curriculum that draws faculty expertise from across SOM departments, programs and centers; the Schools of Dentistry, Pharmacy and Nursing; and, most recently, the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. Several courses are also exploring ways to incorporate lectures from fields outside traditional academic science, such as law.

The interdisciplinary and innovative nature of the GPILS curriculum is best exemplified by the eight-credit core course “Mechanisms in Biomedical Sciences: From Genes to Disease,” required of all first-year students. This semester-long, 8-hours-a-day, 5-days-a-week course is taught by over 60 different faculty members. “The core course is like ‘boot camp’ for graduate students,” says Dr. Strickland. “Although it provides students with a deep and broad foundation of knowledge necessary to succeed in their future research endeavors, it also separates those who are truly serious about going into science careers from those who are not.”

Consistent with its commitment to providing students with the most relevant, contemporary curriculum and information dissemination methods, GPILS is in the second and final year of a pilot program using iPads to link students and their lectures. GPILS faculty and students also recently tested Response-Ware, an e-clicker polling tool, which allows faculty to insert into a presentation multiple-choice questions that students respond to via their iPads. Results are then instantly displayed.

“Using this type of technology, students assess their understanding of key concepts in a risk-free manner and faculty receive real-time feedback, which provides the class an opportunity to revisit certain topics if necessary,” says McHugh. “Though some were hesitant to use the tool at first, we have received very enthusiastic support from lecturers and students on this new approach to teaching and learning.”

Currently, the greatest challenge to programs like GPILS is appropriately addressing the evolving training needs of biomedical graduate students. A 2012 advisory report from the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, convened by the National Institutes of Health, stated that, though the proportion of postdoctoral fellows moving into tenure-track faculty positions has declined from approximately 34% in 1993 to roughly 24% today, graduate training continues to focus on academic fields. The workgroup advised that graduate programs should offer a greater range of potential career options for students.

In response, GPILS leadership is infusing the program with new curricula, programs and support services to help position its students for success in today’s ever-changing career environment. Although most GPILS graduates will still pursue the traditional path of postdoctoral fellowship to an academic researcher, plans are in place to incorporate training in scientific journalism, technology-transfer and patent law, and training for various positions in government, biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry into the program. 

“We are proud of the continued success of the program and of our graduate student-researchers who continue to make noteworthy contributions to the research enterprise,” says Dr. Strickland. “These new educational offerings will help strengthen our ability to better train our students to significantly impact the progress of biomedicine beyond working in academia.”

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