May 15, 1998

Basic science labs share in Ph.D.’s pride

Basic science labs share in Ph.D.'s pride

Last week's commencement provided a chance to honor the accomplishments of a group of graduate students who trained and worked in one of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's many basic science laboratories.

Twenty-eight of the students who received their Ph.D. degrees in the biomedical sciences were part of the first or second class of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, which started recruiting in 1991. The IGP is a type of shared recruitment and training process that has become a model for schools across the nation.

"The IGP has markedly increased the pool of students that enter into the biomedical sciences and has also raised the quality of those students," said Peter W. Reed, Ph.D., associate dean for Graduate Studies and professor of Pharmacology.

The IGP recruits students for graduate studies in biomedical sciences. It involves six basic science departments in the medical center and the Department of Molecular Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.. The students then train for one year as a class, learning basic principles of biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular physiology before deciding which graduate program best fits their interests.

"We were one of the first schools to try this model of learning for graduate students in the biomedical fields. Now this type of training is really starting to catch on," said G. Roger Chalkley, director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Studies, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, and professor of Biochemistry.

As a member of the first class of the IGP, Chris Brown, Ph.D., can attest to the effectiveness of the program.

"When I started in the IGP, I was mainly interested in Cell Biology because of the strong program in developmental biology," said Brown.

When Brown began, he found a lab working on exactly what he was interested in, not in Cell Biology, but rather in the Pharmacology Graduate Program with Dr. Joey V. Barnett, assistant professor of Medicine and Pharmacology.

"I had the opportunity to do research using retroviral gene transfer to study the development of the cardiovascular system while obtaining my degree in an outstanding department and studying a discipline which I knew nothing about when I arrived at Vanderbilt," said Brown.

Brown's studies benefitted Barnett's lab as well.

"When Chris came to me and told me he wanted to work in my lab, I had just arrived and didn¹t even have an actual space set up yet. Over the years he has been indispensable in this lab and I credit him as much as anyone else with our success," said Barnett.

While training in the lab, Brown has presented research papers twice at the Annual Meeting of the American Heart Association and has published one study in the journal Developmental Biology.

Brown will stay in Barnett¹s lab until December, at which time he will depart for his post-doctoral training.

According to many involved with the IGP, having a year to sort out which graduate program to enter and which research problem to focus on has helped many students be more effective researchers while also preparing them to produce ideas independently.

"The graduate students who work in our laboratory are the lifeblood of the research efforts at VUMC," said Dr. Terence S. Dermody, associate professor of Pediatrics and assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology. "They come up with great ideas and are often the ones who transform those ideas into reality.

"The year they spend in class with other students allows them to gain a better understanding of basic science research and to apply discoveries made in other fields to their own work."

Another member of this year¹s graduating class is David Scherer, who studied in the lab of Dean W. Ballard, Ph.D., associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology, and is now doing postdoctoral studies with Luc Van Kaer, Ph.D., assistant professor of Microbiology and Immunology.

"The course work in the first year of graduate studies helped everyone get up to snuff in many different subject areas. It also allowed students to choose laboratory rotations that truly fit their research interests," said Scherer.