A Brief History of Our Interdisciplinary Approach

Up until the mid-1990s, graduate education was departmentally organized in the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. Although workable, this classical approach failed to exploit the rapid pace of change that characterizes modern biomedical science. In response to this challenge, the faculty designed and implemented the Interdisciplinary Biomedical Graduate Program, which admitted its first class in 1997. The goal was not simply to educate students about the past, but rather to prepare them for the future.

Faculties at all universities are notorious for their debates about which topics belong in a core curriculum. Human nature being what it is, individuals often feel that their subject belongs in the center. How then can one encapsulate modern molecular and cell biology in a one semester core graduate course? Our answer was FOUNDATIONS OF BIOMEDICAL SCIENCE. In fourteen weeks it guides students through a demanding introduction that focuses on three general areas; MOLECULES, CELLS, SIGNALS. The course introduces students to mechanistic thinking described in experimental terms, with an emphasis on problem solving and active learning. To foster these ideals, the course is accompanied by a conference course in which students break into small groups to read and discuss the primary literature with faculty mentors. By the end of the first semester, it is expected that all students will develop the skills needed to begin independent analysis of the primary scientific literature along with an appreciation for the major questions and themes that tend to drive current biological thought. An added benefit of this approach is that it helps students develop strong peer relations that end up cutting across disciplinary boundaries.

A second critical element of the Interdisciplinary program is its emphasis on laboratory research, beginning on day one. Classroom activities are important, but the real goal of our program is to train professional scientists who will become the research leaders of tomorrow. We therefore encourage our students to think carefully about their scientific interests and to then choose laboratory rotations driven by those interests. All Interdisciplinary students complete three laboratory rotations during their first year and then find a mentor and laboratory suitable for their dissertation studies. This matching process depends on continuing discussions between students, program advisors and the training faculty.

By the spring semester, Interdisciplinary students are prepared for second tier courses that enable them to begin studying specialized advanced topics related to their specific research interests. By design many of these courses are only 2 credits so that students can explore different topics before making final decisions about the degree granting program they will enter.

The final elements of the Interdisciplinary year are courses in Statistics and Ethics. The statistics course is designed to help all students develop skills for examining data and making reasonable inferences. The Ethics course relies heavily on small group meetings that help students explore the contract between scientists and society.

Finally, upon completion of the Interdisciplinary year, students transfer into one of our degree granting programs. Each of these programs has a similar approach to milestone exams and the graduate experience, each of them also provides a unique specialized perspective related to the different areas of research they explore.