Monday, December 10, 2007

New ASU interdisciplinary PhD graduate program in Biological Design set for launch

[Source: Joseph Caspermeyer, Arizona State University] - To help meet the need of Arizona’s booming bioscience sector and create the next generation of highly skilled, interdisciplinary scientists, the Arizona Board of Regents recently approved an innovative ASU graduate degree in Biological Design. The Biological Design PhD degree program seeks to attract and train new scientific talent to use an outcome-driven, interdisciplinary approach in solving major global challenges in human health and the environment. The program is a collaboration between ASU’s Biodesign Institute, Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “The challenges for the next generation of scientists are more complex and inter-related than ever before,” explains Biodesign Institute researcher Neal Woodbury, who directs the institute’s Center for BioOptical Nanotechnology and is a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“Problems as seemingly unrelated as global pandemics, the need for better medical diagnostics and environmental deterioration all stand to benefit from a convergence of technologies from multiple fields of science. Our goal is to teach students to work in interdisciplinary teams that focus on solving a large-scale problem, rather than working independently on an isolated piece of that problem, which is the more traditional approach,” he said.

The new program reflects ASU’s commitment to “use-inspired” research, one of seven imperatives outlined in 2002 by ASU President Michael Crow as part of the university’s 10-year strategic plan.

An executive committee including individuals from across ASU’s bioscience, engineering, informatics and mathematics academic units spearheaded the effort to create the new PhD program.

According to Biological Design PhD graduate program executive committee member and ASU Professor of Electrical Engineering Trevor Thornton, the main challenge was designing a curriculum to meet the mission of multi-disciplinary, solution-driven research. “An undergraduate curriculum allows a student to gain mastery of an individual discipline,” said Thornton. “The Biological Design PhD program will allow students to apply their core expertise to multi-disciplinary projects, while providing them with the skills they need to work with scientists and engineers from other disciplines.”

The doctoral program consists of a two-semester core course sequence to provide training in bio-related areas. There, PhD candidates will receive intensive training in all the relevant biology-related areas (among them, biophysics, biomedical engineering, biochemistry, molecular biology) combined with emergent disciplines including synthetic biology, systems biology, artificial tissues and drug development.

More than 100 ASU participating faculty will be eligible to mentor students in the program. Initially, 15 students will be recruited each year, generating a total student enrollment in the effort of 60 students by the fourth year.

Science is in the midst of a profound transformation, with increasingly complex data sets and problems requiring a large, interdisciplinary team approach combining the biological sciences, physical sciences, engineering and computing. Arizona has been on the fast track in creating a collaborative environment for success. To catalyze Arizona efforts, the state heavily invested in advancing its research portfolio at its universities with more than $400M in capital improvements including: ASU’s Biodesign Institute and Interdisciplinary Science and Technical Buildings (I, II, III); UA’s BIO5; the expansion of the UA Medical Center in Phoenix in partnership with ASU; and the new Arizona Biomedical Collaborative building, home of ASU’s School of Biomedical Informatics.

These significant investments have been matched by the recruitment of top scientific talent to fill the research space and jump start entirely new statewide scientific initiatives. A report from the nonprofit Flinn Foundation assessing education needs in the bioscience arena notes that bioscience and high-tech organizations statewide are increasingly dependent on students trained in interdisciplinary, use-inspired science for expansion, growth and economic success. “We will put great emphasis on individual mentoring of the students,” said Stephen Albert Johnston, a professor in the School of Life Sciences within the College of Liberal Arts and director of the Center for Innovations in Medicine at the Biodesign Institute. “We want their time with the program to be effective, and therefore, I expect most students to finish in four to five years.”

Students will explore disciplinary areas of greatest interest and have a large impact in topics such as biofuels, nanoscience, human-computer interfaces, personalized medicine and infectious disease. Students will have an almost unlimited menu of courses to take from campus-wide academic units in science and engineering as well as appropriate training courses in law, policy, sociology and business. This will serve to create a highly flexible degree program focused on preparing student for interdisciplinary careers in science and engineering or the application of science and engineering fundamentals to commercial, legal, political, or social realms.

Students will receive a highly competitive stipend plus full tuition reimbursement and health care benefits. The program is supported by state funds from the Technology Research Infrastructure Fund, Science Foundation Arizona, and individual investigator research grants. The deadline for applicants to the fall 2008 program is January 1, 2008. [For more information and to apply online, go to]

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