NSF program fosters graduate study in the "white spaces" between scientific disciplines
View a video interview with materials scientist Robin Garrell of UCLA.
From understanding climate change to predicting infectious disease outbreaks to engineering solutions to address disability, scientific research is increasingly crossing the boundaries between disciplines.
Fostering interdisciplinary research, education and training as a means of developing the next generation of scientists is a key goal of the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) program. Through IGERT, graduate students work as part of interdisciplinary teams, learning the language of other disciplines as they collaborate to confront some of the major challenges of the day.
Nick Burger did graduate studies with principal investigator Charles Kolstad at an IGERT project at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) that brought together economics and environmental science. One of 159 active IGERT projects in the U.S., the UCSB project gave Burger coursework that integrated science with economics and policy. So when Kolstad, who was on the U.S. team appointed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) , asked Burger to do writing and research for a section of the fourth report of the IPCC, Burger was well-prepared to contribute.
Under the heading, "Mitigation of Climate Change," Burger eventually served with Kolstad as a lead author for a chapter titled, "Policies, Instruments and Cooperative Arrangements." In that role, he wrote sections of the chapter--which addressed the impact of policies such as emissions trading ("cap and trade") and carbon tax--and reviewed and addressed comments from reviewers all over the world.
"My work in the IGERT project made me better prepared for the IPCC opportunity," says Burger. "My graduate studies gave me a background that helped me see how economic policies played out as part of the science of climate change."
Kolstad agrees. "I think that being able to contribute meaningfully to the IPCC really demonstrates the success of the IGERT. We have people with unique skills that you can't find just anywhere. They're well prepared to go out and actually solve real-world problems."
Principal investigator and grad student were in good company. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.
Another challenge of global significance is the proliferation of infectious diseases such as dengue fever, which endangers nearly two-fifths of the world's population. To investigate dengue transmission, students from the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UH Manoa) IGERT project, "Integrative Training in Ecology, Conservation and Pathogen Biology," (IGERT ECPB) and their counterparts from Thailand's Mahidol University (MU) are collaborating on various research initiatives. This work is especially pertinent given what Thai health authorities describe as a "near-crisis." Thailand has seen an explosive 72 percent increase in dengue cases since last year.
IGERT ECPB fellow Amy Henry and MU student Panpim Thongsripong, who appeared in a recent MSNBC story on Asia's dengue outbreak, are using an interdisciplinary approach, testing the hypothesis that human density and movement influence the spread of this mosquito-borne disease. As part of IGERT ECPB's joint training effort, Panpim will begin her doctoral studies in UH Manoa's Department of Tropical Medicine in the fall.
In 2007, IGERT ECPB students assisted MU with a week-long eco-bio-social research workshop attended by several dozen dengue researchers from six Asian nations. Another innovative partnership involved installing several wireless weather stations for long-term climate monitoring in conjunction with Thai mosquito collection.
Under principal investigator Bruce Wilcox's leadership, these and other initiatives prompted the recent formation of a "Collaborative Research Unit on Vector Borne and Emerging Infectious Diseases" between MU and the UH Manoa's Asia Pacific Institute of Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases.
At Arizona State University, an IGERT project, the Biofeedback for Stroke Rehabilitation project in the Arts, Media and Engineering Program, led by principal investigator Thanasis Rikakis, is using an interactive computer-based rehabilitation system to improve therapy and enhance functional recovery for stroke survivors. The system allows stroke survivors to practice functional movement tasks while receiving computer feedback measuring the performance of tasks and identifying the sources of error.
When people interact with their environment, whether through walking from one place to another, grasping an object, talking to a person, or driving a car, sensory processing is integrated with the motor functions that allow the person to complete the task.
The goal of the rehabilitation system is to activate the conscious integration of sensory processing and motor functions in stroke survivors during the therapy to promote neural plasticity--a re-wiring of an area of the brain-- for recovery of motor and cognitive functions. The system allows for the development of customized therapy protocols for each patient, depending on his or her medical profile and needs.
A preliminary study with three patients was completed last year, and a more advanced pilot study with three patients participating in 10 sessions each was completed earlier this year. Results indicate that interactive mediated rehabilitation can significantly enhance traditional rehabilitation therapy. The results further confirm that computer assisted adaptive rehabilitation protocols (a key innovative aspect of the system) are feasible, scaleable and preferable to fixed protocols. The team is using the results to develop a scaled-down version of the system that can be used at the clinic and at the home.
The Biofeedback for Stroke Rehabilitation project has now developed a partnership with the Rhodes Rehabilitation Institute at Banner Baywood Medical Center. A scaled version of the biofeedback system will be installed at the medical center by January 2009. The results of this partnership will be the use of the system by both inpatient and outpatient stroke survivors in daily therapy and extensive clinical studies for the validation and further improvement of the system. Therapy sessions and studies will be realized through daily on-site collaboration between IGERT trainees and faculty and medical personnel of the hospital.
"This project is an example of how IGERT transcends traditional boundaries," says NSF Program Manager Carol Van Hartesveldt. "By bringing together the elements of engineering, rehabilitation and interactive media, the IGERT can address an important societal challenge in a new way."
Adds Program Manager Judy Giordan, "The IGERT program cuts across all the funding areas of the NSF. It supports more than 1500 trainees each year in 40 states and Washington, D.C. The program's broad reach, along with our commitment to build a diverse population of scientists and engineers, is helping us develop a new generation of scientists that will be well-equipped to address the challenges of the future."
IGERT's annual report, detailing projects and accomplishments, is accessible at http://nsf.gov/pubs/2008/nsf0840/index.jsp.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.
Useful NSF Web Sites: