Memo Date: 3/27/98

To: Tulane Medical School Graduate Faculty Members (never circulated to entire faculty)

From: Sam Landry, Assistant Professor, Dept. Biochemistry

RE: Unified first-year graduate training in biological sciences

I urge the Medical School Faculty to consider the unification of recruitment efforts and the 1st year curricula for graduate programs in basic biological sciences. I have been a member of the Tulane Faculty since 1993 and currently serve on the Graduate Studies Committee for the Department of Biochemistry and the Steering Committee for the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Molecular and Cellular Biology. I hope this memo stimulates discussion and input to the Basic Sciences Council of the Tulane Medical Center and the Graduate Council of Tulane University.

Any perception that this memo promotes the wholesale merger of departments is unintended. The reassignment of responsibility for graduate program recruitment and the 1st year from departments to a unified program should be evaluated on its own merits. This memo will not discuss many issues related to departmental responsibilities such as the administration of space and equipment, evaluation for promotion and tenure, and even the development of Ph.D. degree criteria. The achievement of a strong research and training environment depends on the immediate availability of state-of-the-art facilities, a secure faculty, and effective leadership which is provided by departments.

Changes in the research and training environment at Tulane have led to discussion of a partial consolidation of graduate programs in the biological sciences, and a Graduate Program Review of Medical Center Programs* undertaken by the Graduate School recommended a "centralized admission process and core curriculum extending through the first year of graduate school." This memo considers the merits and challenges of consolidating recruitment and the 1st-year curricula with retention of the existing Ph.D. degree choices. After the 1st year and selection of an advisor, students would follow a curriculum specified by a particular discipline or interdisciplinary program.

Recent experience suggests that faculty in the various departments can develop such a program and that it will take the best advantage of strengths on both the Uptown and Downtown campuses. Challenges to the development of such a program can be overcome with interdepartmental cooperation. Rewards of a combined program will include the institutionalization of this cooperation and a unified and stronger graduate student body.

  1. The present situation
  2. Advantages of a unified program
  3. Programmatic hurdles
  4. Political hurdles
  5. Conclusions
I. The present situation

Tulaneís creation of new graduate programs in the absence of increased funding for graduate training has resulted in a smaller allocation of resources for the average training program. Evolution of research in biological sciences and pressure on the federal government to support novel and targeted research compel the University to develop interdisciplinary research and training programs. Tulane has responded by creating centers of excellence in bioenvironmental science, cancer, gene therapy, and infectious disease and graduate programs in neuroscience and molecular and cellular biology. As for any graduate program, these require a commitment of administrative, teaching, and financial resources. Since the development of these new programs occurs at a time when the perceived need for Ph.D.ís is waning, the federal government and Tulane University have not increased support for graduate training. Thus, resources previously dedicated to traditional programs have been stretched or reallocated to meet the needs of the new interdisciplinary programs.

The total number of "stipend-years" of research and teaching assistantships at Tulane is holding steady during a gradual redistribution among interdisciplinary research and training programs over the last five years. A detailed history of all events and transactions would be laborious. However, three major developments should be highlighted: (1) All teaching assistantships in the Cell and Molecular Biology Department (CMB Department) and several research assistantships in the Medical School were transferred to the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB Program). (2) The cost of an individual assistantship has increased while the Chancellor of the Medical Center has provided a fixed level of funds for assistantships. Thus, the effective number of assistantships provided by the Chancellor has decreased. (3) The Tulane Cancer Center began providing matching funds for research assistantships (six stipends matched this year), and the Center for Bioenvironmental Research instituted a scholarship program (ten nine-month stipends provided this year). [Note that these awards are made on year-by-year basis.]

The principal limitation on the expansion of graduate training programs is the static number of research and teaching assistantships. The administrative overhead of a graduate program is modest, and teaching requirements of an interdisciplinary program can be met by existing courses (albeit perhaps making for a weak program). In theory, the number of graduate students could be doubled by "splitting" assistantships, in which the training program supports a given student for two years and the advisorís research funds supports him/her thereafter. However, all assistantships provided by the MCB and Neuroscience Programs already are of this type, and Medical School departments have long had policies in place to move students onto research funds. Thus, it is unlikely that splitting assistantships could yield more than a few additional slots for incoming students.

Since the success of any graduate program depends on the recruitment and matriculation of graduate students, increased competition for students reduces the size and viability of all programs. The new interdisciplinary programs necessarily compete with the traditional programs for graduate students because most basic sciences faculty members that participate in interdisciplinary programs also participate in departmental programs. Even if the training programs were infused with more resources and/or more assistantships were "split", the size of Tulaneís graduate training effort would continue to be limited by advisorsí time, space, and funding.

II. Advantages of a unified program

A large selection of potential thesis advisors is likely to attract more students to a combined graduate program than collectively applies to the individual graduate programs. As of March 20th, the MCB Program had received thirty applications from US citizens with combined (verbal + quantitative) GRE scores exceeding 1100. This figure is comparable to the combined total for all other basic sciences programs. [In previous years, MCB has admitted ~50% of those actively recruited.] Since most of the MCB Program faculty also are eligible to train in another basic sciences program, these students are not applying to the MCB Program in order to reach laboratories that are otherwise unavailable. Although some of these students might have applied to one of the other programs if MCB were not a choice, many of them are attracted to Tulane by the interdisciplinary approach of the MCB Program, and many are attracted by the multitude of potential advisors (approximately 70 professors). Students recognize that the success of their graduate training depends not only on a match between the advisorís and their own interests; it also depends on publications and funding. For example, one half to two-thirds of the MCB faculty have extramural funding; and thus, only this fraction is eligible to accept students; and only a subset of these may be willing to accept a particular student at a given time.

Students of a given class will be together throughout the early period of graduate training, providing a sense of community and fostering healthy competition. It is generally believed that joint interviews with the candidates has a favorable impact, presumably because the candidates meet their future classmates and get a sense of "weíre in this together." Later, the collective experience of the class gives a student confidence to affect his/her condition by using the collective voice. A larger class provides more opportunity for each student to identify with one or more peers who are close in interest and ability. Such students are more likely to compare themselves to each other in order to measure progress. This healthy competition is surely an important feature of American academia as well as the private sector.

Common training goals for both students and faculty will increase interdepartmental interaction. In many cases, laboratories engaged in related research are located in different departments. This is likely to occur more frequently in the context of interdisciplinary initiatives promoted by Tulaneís research centers and by extramural granting agencies. Interdepartmental efforts in recruitment and teaching will demand facile communication for an effective program.

In identifying a combination of advisor and degree program that best suits his/her interests and career ambition, a student will have more choices in a combined program if the governing body for a particular degree program allows professors outside the associated department to train Ph.D,ís in its program. Currently, for example, a student may choose the MCB Program strictly on the basis of its increased choice of advisors despite that he/she would prefer to obtain a degree in one of the traditional disciplines. Although the MCB Program curriculum allows the student to obtain an equivalent training experience, the degree awarded must be in MCB. A more desirable system is exemplified by professors who hold adjunct appointments. In this case, a student selects a training program independently of the advisorís departmental affiliation. However, training departments often are unwilling to support the assistantship (albeit only for a year) of a student advised by an adjunct professor. In a combined graduate program, assistantships would be assigned to students regardless of degree or advisor. The rigor of a degree program need not be compromised by this strategy. Standards could be clearly codified, and the number of thesis committee members from outside the degree program could be severely limited.

III. Programmatic hurdles

It will be challenging to develop a single 1st-year curriculum that adequately prepares students for degrees in biochemistry, pharmacology, molecular and cellular biology, microbiology and immunology, physiology, neuroscience and anatomy. Some optimism is inspired by the fact that students in several of these programs currently take several of the same courses. It is likely that most programs could identify two or three courses that are essential for all students, such as biochemistry, molecular biology, and cell biology. Some might be concerned that professors who dominate the teaching in these courses would disproportionately attract students in a combined program. However, the MCB Program experience does not indicate such a trend. On the basis of its representation in the MCB Program, Biochemistry should attract roughly one MCB student per year, but it has attracted a total of four since the programís inception in 1991, despite that Biochemistry offers two required courses to MCB students. In any case, formation of a combined program would promote interdepartmental faculty participation in courses. For example, Biochemistry would not be compelled to shoulder responsibility for two 1st-year courses, and other departments would be motivated to send faculty to teach in the 1st-year courses.

The two or three essential courses would not fill out a full schedule for the 1st year; thus, in addition to continuing core material, selected courses could be offered in the second semester in order to accommodate alternate degree paths. This could turn out to be an important benefit of a combined program. These second-semester courses would be the core of each degree program. Any overlap that previously might have existed between basic courses in the various departments likely would be eliminated by the heightened interdepartmental consciousness and participation. Each second-semester course could focus on the most distinctive and important material.

The traditional disciplines of biological science provide a logical array of choices for Ph.D. degree programs, but a combined program allows the introduction of new degrees with greater ease than is currently possible. Given the present enthusiasm of government and academia for interdisciplinary programs and targeted research, Tulane should strive to identify unique strengths, promote their growth, and encourage the development of training programs centered around them. In a combined program, the absence of competition between departments will permit faculty to develop training plans based on logical associations of experts. An NIH training grant is likely to be awarded to a unique and well focused degree program in which Tulane has obvious leadership and expertise.

A teaching experience is a traditional element of graduate training, but it has not been available to students in several Medical Center degree programs. A unique partnership of the MCB Program to the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology was created by the transfer of CMBís teaching assistantships. In order to sustain CMBís undergraduate teaching responsibilities, all MCB students are required to teach a lab course twice per week for one semester and serve as grader for one semester during each of the first two years. This has been a highly successful partnership despite the hardship for students traveling back and forth between campuses. Teaching experiences for non-MCB students frequently are discussed among Medical Center faculty, either in response to the appeals of students who desire them or in hopes of satisfying an increasing need for tutors and facilitators for problem-based learning sessions for medical students. Opportunities for teaching are present and growing. Formation of a combined training program will enable the re-deployment of teaching responsibilities for the benefit of more students.

IV. Political hurdles

The process of combining training programs will present an opportunity for the Chancellor of the Medical Center to reduce support for assistantships. However, the Chancellor will be discouraged from such action by a resolute faculty dedicated to a substantive change that meshes with his agenda to develop interdisciplinary research. Medical Center faculty should try to obtain a commitment from the Chancellor to support a number of assistantships rather than a fixed dollar amount.

Graduate programs based in the Departments of Environmental Health Sciences and Tropical Medicine attract students with similar interests and education to those recruited by Medical School graduate programs. Public Health and Medical School research activities already intermingle within the confines of the Health and Environmental Research Building. Perhaps resources currently devoted to support of these students in the 1st year could be redirected to a unified program, and faculty in these departments would be given access to a much larger pool of 1st-year students.

The Uptown campus provides only a handful of teaching assistantships formerly in the CMB Department, and a merger would effectively make all Downtown assistantships part of a large pool that the CMB Department could draw from. If a unified graduate program provided more teaching assistants for CMB laboratory courses, the Uptown administration might be persuaded to contribute more funding for assistantships.

A combined program will increase the number of advisor choices for students and possibly tend to concentrate students in well-funded labs. Indeed, this would not be a positive outcome because diversity is an important feature of a university and its research enterprise. It is a diversity of thought which is sought in any interdisciplinary effort. Unfortunately, the centralization and targeting of research efforts could frustrate this very goal. Developers of a combined program may consider regulating the number of students that any one lab can take.

Organizers of the administrative structure of a combined program must develop policy and create committees that adequately represent the interests of each degree program. Since the combined program concerns only recruitment and the 1st year, many programmatic issues will not be faced by these organizers. However, the combined program must identify a director or committee that advocates for all graduate programs in biological science to the Chancellor and Uptown administration. Although leadership of the Tulane University Graduate School must approve significant changes in Ph.D. programs, a director or governing body for the combined program may take the lead in identifying strengths that should be developed into new programs. The composition of committees will be a critical issue. Faculty must be secure that everything is being done to attract students who are likely to be interested in their labs. The 1st-year curriculum must provide a knowledge base that will serve a student in any of the degree programs.

V. Conclusions

Forces both within and without the Tulane community urge combination of recruitment efforts and 1st-year curricula for graduate training in the biological sciences. Although several challenges must be faced in such a reorganization, the resulting training environment will be more attractive to student candidates, and the increased interdepartmental cooperation will more effectively promote interdisciplinary research.

* Graduate Program Review of Medical Center Programs, November 7, 1996, approved by the Graduate Council and distributed by Eamon M. Kelly, Interim Dean, Graduate School