May 21, 2004

Newly minted Ph.D.s have proud day

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Sean Brock lines up to receive his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. He was a student of James Crowe, M.D. Photo by Dana Johnson

Newly minted Ph.D.s have proud day

They passed their classes, completed their research projects and successfully defended their theses.

But it was the vibrant, flowing fabric of the doctoral hood that formally marked the finish line of graduate school for the new crop of biomedical science Ph.D.s.

In recognition of years of hard work in the classroom and the laboratory, faculty mentors conferred the highest degree in academia — the Doctor of Philosophy — to 53 biomedical science students in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) last week. Twenty-eight IGP doctoral students participated in the hooding ceremony last Friday on the Library Lawn.

The IGP, instituted in 1992, has shown significant growth, both in number and caliber of the students accepted, according to Roger Chalkley, D.Phil., senior associate dean in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training (BRET). Great strides are also being made in the percentage of incoming minority students, Chalkley said, which currently stands around 15 percent.

The first year of training for biomedical students includes intensive coursework and laboratory rotations. At the end of the first year, students choose research mentors and home departments where they will complete their thesis. On average, students require about five years to complete their degree.

“The IGP has been interdisciplinary and trans-institutional from the get-go,” Chalkley said. Students in the IGP can choose from around 10 academic departments, both in the College of Arts and Sciences as well as the School of Medicine.

“The reason the students are interested in coming here, apart from the institutional component, is the freedom,” Chalkley said.

With their education complete, this year’s graduates are now embarking on new careers. According to Chalkley, most students follow traditional paths for Ph.D.s — pursuing research positions in academia and industry.

Marylyn Ritchie, Ph.D., assistant professor of Molecular Physiology & Biophysics, is one of last week’s conferees on the traditional path. Ritchie accepted a faculty position at Vanderbilt shortly after finishing her degree.

With training in genetics, statistics and computer science, Ritchie’s experience showcases the interdisciplinary nature of the program.

“The program really lived up to its name of being interdisciplinary,” Ritchie said.

She also gave the IGP high marks for its “pro-student” attitude.

“They involve the students a lot in decision-making processes. Things have changed a lot since I started the program. I know a lot of that is due to comments my class made and classes after mine have made,” Ritchie said.

Lisan Parker, Ph.D., currently a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, called the IGP “a great, yet challenging experience” and complimented the program’s approach to diversity.

“As a minority student, I was particularly impressed with the commitment of the BRET staff, especially Dr. Roger Chalkley and Ellen Carter, to stand behind, encourage, and support the majority if not all of the students regardless of their ethnic background.”

Chalkley also recognized that a growing number of graduates are following less traditional routes after graduation, pursuing so-called “alternative” careers in science writing, policy, and law.

For example, Kim Petrie, Ph.D., recently accepted a position as the academic affairs and program development specialist in the Office of Biomedical Research Education and Training.

“I started to realize that I was one of these ‘strange’ people in graduate school — I enjoyed writing. I liked the process of sitting down and synthesizing all my data from my thesis,” Petrie said.

In her new position, Petrie will put the writing talent that she cultivated in graduate school to use, assisting Chalkley with outcomes analysis, Web site development, and designing recruitment material.

Regarding her graduate experience, Petrie praised the collaborative environment of the IGP and the Vanderbilt community.

“I probably spent about 50 percent of my time in other labs. That’s one of Vanderbilt’s strong points — that collaborations are strongly encouraged and fostered here,” said Petrie.

Regardless of their chosen career paths, each generation of Ph.D.s is charged with creating and communicating new knowledge to the world. However, the world does not always readily embrace these new ideas.

At the Commencement ceremony, Associate Provost Dennis Hall, Ph.D., spoke of the difficulty involved in bringing new ideas into the mainstream.

“I encourage you to join this struggle,” Hall said. “Your graduate degrees have prepared you for what lies ahead.”