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Revamped biology Ph.D. program aims to double admissions

BY ALY BROWN | JULY 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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UI Biology Department officials say renovations in the Ph.D. program will better train students for careers in science through collaboration and seminar opportunities.

Josh Weiner, head of the IBIO program and associate professor in the department, said the new program — to be implemented in the fall of 2013 — will attract students interested in big-picture puzzles in basic biology.

"We are rebooting the grad program," he said. "We compete for students with other institutions and other overlapping UI programs, like the biosciences and interdisciplinary programs. We want to attract the kind of students who are most interested in big issues in basic biology."

Last year, four new students enrolled in the biology Ph.D. program, but Weiner wants to double those admitted. The program has 33 Ph.D. students; Weiner said the program used to house 50 before severe state and Graduate College budget cuts reduced the number.

Weiner said there aren't many departmental graduate programs around anymore, noting many have merged to create interdisciplinary focuses.

A major concentration for IBIO is to encourage collaboration among faculty, students, and various labs in the department.

"There were different 'research areas' in the old biology Ph.D. program," he said. "In IBIO, however, everything is integrated, and while each lab is focused on a smaller set of topics, students will be expected to integrate into the program as a whole."

During the fall semester of their first year, students previously participated in research rotations between three labs for 10 to 11 weeks, but IBIO will allow seven weeks.

Weiner said while these rotations can expose students to a broad range of interests in biology, the abbreviated period will cut first-year costs in half.

Two faculty members created a student seminar series that will teach instruction, presentation, and collaboration skills.

Sarit Smolikove, a UI biology assistant professor, and John Manak, UI biology and pediatrics assistant professor, formed the Ph.D. student seminar series allowing students to present their research with the UI community.

"It is tremendously important for training for students," Smolikove said. "It helps motivate, helps students focus, and it is a good tool for research development."

The series has been in its trial stage, but students will be required to present once a year in IBIO.

"Tremendous amount of success so far," Manak said. "I get a sense that students take their work a little bit more seriously now, knowing that there is a fairly high bar."

Smolikove said IBIO's emphasis on broader ideas and skills will help UI scientists communicate with each other and the public.

"The ability to communicate with a broad audience is growing in importance," she said. "We have to convince the public that science is important. We have to show them, not tell them, that science is cool. Without them, we're dead."


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