May 19, 2006

Graduation 2006: Newest Ph.D.s ready to shine

Featured Image

Graduating Ph.D. students in line to receive their diplomas and doctoral hoods at commencement included, from left: Michelle Mazei-Robison, Pharmacology; Amy McClendon, Biochemistry; Paul McDonald, Neuroscience; Sarah McDonald, Microbiology & Immunology; Sapna Mehta, Cell & Developmental Biology.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Graduation 2006: Newest Ph.D.s ready to shine

Terence Dermody, M.D., left, shares a laugh with his former student Jacquelyn Campbell before the graduate school ceremony. Campbell received her Ph.D. in Microbiology & Immunology.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Arlene Kray waits in line before the graduate school ceremony.  She received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology.
Photo by Dana Johnson

Arlene Kray waits in line before the graduate school ceremony. She received her Ph.D. in Pharmacology.
Photo by Dana Johnson

When she attended the Vanderbilt commencement ceremony of a fellow laboratory member several years ago, Sarah McDonald remarked that she would be near the front of the line to receive her Ph.D. degree. Her last name at the time was Brockway, after all.

A prescient friend suggested that she might marry and change her name before she finished her graduate school studies.

“Paul and I had just started dating back then, and now here I am, in the middle of the line graduating as a McDonald,” she laughed at last week's commencement, her husband and fellow graduate Paul McDonald by her side.

The McDonalds were two of 64 biomedical science students who earned academia's highest degree, the Doctor of Philosophy degree, in August, December or May. The 30 graduates participating in last Friday's ceremony on the Library Lawn received doctoral hoods edged with dark blue velvet from their faculty mentors, formally marking the end of their graduate studies.

In his opening remarks, Associate Provost Dennis Hall, Ph.D., told the graduates that the American poet Robert Frost described education as “hanging around until you've caught on.”

“Thank you for hanging around … we think you've caught on,” Hall said.

He exhorted the graduates to join academicians the world over in “the struggle for ideas.”

“The world we live in has a great need for those who can advance new ideas and for those who can help others recognize the merits of good ideas, whether old or new. Part of your job, going forward, is to help us figure out which ideas are good ones, which ones need to be incorporated into our ever-changing worldview.

“So please, get out there and join the struggle,” Hall said.

Most of the biomedical science graduates began their studies in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP), now in its 14th year of recruiting and educating graduate students who are interested in biological and biomedical research.

A new interdisciplinary program — the Chemical & Physical Biology Program (CPB) — was launched in 2001 for students with a quantitative sciences background who wish to pursue research in areas that span the boundaries of the chemical, physical and biological sciences.

The CPB expects to honor its first graduates in 2007.

Both graduate programs organize the training — intensive coursework and laboratory rotations — of students during their first year at Vanderbilt. At the end of the first year, students choose mentors and home departments or programs where they complete their coursework and doctoral dissertation research.

IGP mentors include faculty members in the seven basic science departments of the Medical Center, the Neuroscience graduate program, the program in Human Genetics, and the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science. The CPB program includes a subset of IGP faculty interested in structural and chemical biology as well as members of the departments of Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics.

Students cite the flexibility of these interdisciplinary programs as one of the main reasons they were attracted to Vanderbilt and value their education here.

“Vanderbilt offers a top-notch graduate education that is far more collaborative than others,” said Sarah McDonald, who earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology & Immunology, working with Mark Denison, M.D. “It doesn't matter what lab or department you're part of — you can draw on the research strengths and diversity of all the programs.”

On average, students require about five and a half years to complete their degree, and the majority — 85 percent — go on to academic postdoctoral fellowships, said Kim Petrie, Ph.D., director of Career Development & Outcomes Analysis at Vanderbilt.

Paul McDonald opted for a non-traditional route, taking a position with the strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in the Washington, D.C., area.

“Graduates of a great school like Vanderbilt really have the opportunity to go anywhere,” said Paul McDonald, who earned his Ph.D. in Neuroscience, working with Randy Blakely, Ph.D.

He said he was drawn to the fast turnaround and high impact of consulting work. His group assesses programs for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and advises the agency about investigators who may be candidates for carrying out priority research projects.

Jacquelyn Campbell, who earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology & Immunology, working with Terence Dermody, M.D., also opted for “something different,” she said. She's working for the Department of Defense as a research scientist.

No matter where their paths lead them, Hall told the graduates, “Your degrees have prepared you, as well as you can be prepared, for what lies ahead, and heaven knows we need your help.”