“In almost all fields, the boundaries between and among disciplines
are blurring. Often we find the most fertile scientific opportunities in these
"foggy crossings" where the knowledge in one field answers questions
Dr. Rita R. Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation
at the February 2003 IGERT Principal Investigators' Meeting
OSU was honored this year with its second National Science Foundation IGERT award. The IGERT, or Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, is an NSF initiative designed to establish innovative new models for graduate education, emphasizing collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries.
OSU Geosciences professor Julia Jones heads the team that put together this year’s award-winning proposal. The program, funded at about $3.9 million over five years, helps to define the emerging science of Ecosystem Informatics, a blending of ecosystem science, computer science, and mathematics. The goal is to train scientists who can work on interdisciplinary teams, integrating scientific inquiry with state-of-the-art modeling, data analysis, interpretation, and information management systems. Graduates of this PhD-level program will be prepared to make important, innovative contributions to the natural resource policy and management questions facing society today.
“Practically every government agency, national and international organization involved in natural resources and ecosystem management has some kind of ongoing activity that involves ecosystem informatics,” Jones says. “But the synergistic integration of mathematical modeling and computer science into ecosystem science is largely missing from graduate education today. Our IGERT will jump-start the process of collaboration.”
The cross-training students receive in the program will expand their professional prospects in exciting new directions. Computer Sciences professor Tom Dietterich, who helped design the program, explains. "Ecosystem informatics offers students in computer science a career path that is very different from the dot-com cubical farm. Instead of making incremental changes to existing desktop applications, computer science PhDs can apply their expertise to the problems of acquiring and analyzing ecological data and the challenges of building computer languages and methods specifically tailored to the needs of ecosystem scientists."
OSU is particularly well-suited to offer the ecosystem informatics program. Our region is steeped in hotly contested biophysical resource management problems, in areas such as old-growth management, salmon fisheries, and urbanization. Participating faculty members are leading cutting-edge research at the overlapping frontiers of the three key disciplines. They have a history of successful collaboration across mathematics, computer science, ecology, earth sciences, and natural resource policy and management.
Professor Mark Harmon, lead investigator for the H. J. Andrews Long-term Ecologic Research Program, has helped leverage many of these collaborations. “We are really excited about this new program. It allows OSU to combine strengths in long-term and broad-scale field research with new developments in mathematics and computer sciences. This will help us develop the tools and scientists required for analyzing these complex yet critical systems.”
Ecosystem informatics students will pursue a PhD in one of seven participating graduate programs, to develop a depth of knowledge in the scientific process as it relates to one chosen field. The IGERT will serve as an integrated minor, providing a broad range of cross-disciplinary research experiences.
Each year will start with a 10-day “boot camp” at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Range, where students will be trained in concepts, field methods, and hypothesis-testing in ecosystem science. The program also includes a three-quarter lecture and lab sequence, with students working in cross-disciplinary teams to develop the core science and communication skills they’ll need for an integrated approach to research. They’ll study ethical issues, and participate in monthly colloquia with partners from industry, government, and academia, evaluating case studies of ecosystem informatics in a variety of science and policy/management venues.
Students will apply what they’re learning in research projects within their departments. In their second year, students will complete six-month internships in ecosystem informatics projects around the country and internationally. A dozen institutions, from the World Wildlife Fund in the U.S. to laboratories in Japan and Finland, have already offered to serve as hosts and mentors.
Fifteen students per year will be accepted for the ecosystem informatics program, with full support for tuition and research expenses.
OSU’s first National Science Foundation IGERT project began serving students in the fall of 2002. The Earth’s Subsurface Biosphere program, sponsored jointly with Portland State University, was funded at $2.6 million over five years. It allows 15 students a year to be mentored by an internationally recognized team – engineers, microbiologists, geologists, oceanographers, geochemists, soil scientists, and hydrologists – working to unlock the mysteries of life beneath the surface of the earth.
OSU oceanic and atmospheric sciences professor Martin Fisk, who directs the subsurface biosphere program, explains that there is tremendous potential in studying the subsurface biosphere. “It turns out there is a huge amount of biomass beneath the surface,” he says. “Researchers have found that there are about a billion microbes per cubic centimeter at the ocean floor, but even a mile below the seafloor, there are still about one million bacteria in the same sized sample.” IGERT program research in this area could lead to innovations in drinking water safety, handling of toxic wastes, mining efficiency, soil and crop science, and countless other areas.
As in the ecosystems informatics IGERT, students will complete a PhD in one of the participating programs – oceanography, microbiology, molecular and cellular biology, bioengineering, environmental engineering, soil science, geology, and biology. The subsurface biosphere program serves as an integrated minor.
The interdisciplinary nature of the program influences the students’ experience on many levels. They are encouraged to work in different labs outside their own disciplines. They attend bi-weekly seminars, where they present and discuss research from their varied perspectives as engineers, physical and biological scientists. Required courses reflect the diversity of scale -- from the microbial to the global -- that underlies interdisciplinary research.
“Students come in with a wide variety of backgrounds,” Fisk explains. “Some are engineers who don’t know much about microbiology. Others are microbiologists who don’t know much about the earth from a geologic standpoint. Our goal is to give them all a big picture view of how the subsurface biosphere influences the world, so when they’re done, they understand where their own projects fit on a global scale.”
One avenue toward this goal is a year-long problem-solving course that all students take during their second year in the program. The students are presented with a complex subsurface terrestrial microbiology problem from one of the labs associated with the program. Students read scientific papers on the topic and contribute their views. The goal of the course is to write a review paper that discusses the central multidisciplinary aspects of the problem, and a formal proposal for funding to explore the problem.
Students learn to take advantage of the resources and people outside their own labs. Dozens of collaborators around the world are available to them through faculty research projects. An internship in industry, a laboratory, a university, or an appropriate field site is a required component of the program, and 18 internship sites are already aligned with the program.
Sixteen students are currently enrolled in the earth’s subsurface biosphere program, with plans to add another 10 in the coming year. Students who enter with a master’s degree can expect to spend about three years in the program, while those with a bachelor’s will take four to five years. The IGERT provides two years of support while students are completing the majority of their coursework, with the intent that research grants of participating faculty will support them for their remaining time in the program.