May 30, 2013

Integrating Policy into Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Training

Posted by kuhlenbrock


The blue line train was approaching. Only a half hour ago, we had landed at Reagan after a red-eye flight from Seattle to Atlanta, then a short flight to DC. Instead of arriving on Saturday at 10 pm, we arrived Sunday morning at 9 am. Despite being sleep-deprived, I rattled off the organizations we were going to visit tomorrow – U.S. Global Climate Research Program, Meridian Institute, and Union of Concerned Scientists. At that moment, I did not realize how impactful this trip to DC would be on my personal and professional development.

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Sleep-deprived IGERT students enjoying a nice day in Washington, DC before a long week of meetings ahead of them. Credit: Julian Reyes

Interdisciplinary graduate education programs, such as the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), aim to promote novel approaches to training future scientists to effectively tackle our pressing and complex problems. These programs train students to have a broad, contextual understanding of their in-depth research topic, in addition to critical-thinking skills.

I am currently a third-year graduate student at Washington State University involved in our IGERT program called NSPIRE: Nitrogen Systems: Policy-oriented Integrated Research and Education. NSPIRE provides the backdrop for interdisciplinary research with relevant policy experience and contextual understanding of the research at hand. The vision of NSPIRE is to produce a new generation of scientists who can effectively engage with one another across discipline boundaries, policymakers, and stakeholders to develop holistic and sustainable solutions to our ever growing complex problems.

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NSPIRE students at the National Science Foundation. Credit: Julian Reyes

During the first year of the program, we learned about the nitrogen cycle through a variety of different disciplinary lenses – hydrology, atmospheric sciences, animal sciences, soil sciences, and ecosystem ecology. In the spring semester, we were immersed in an intensive public policy studio, learning about policy theory and examining environmental case studies. The capstone of the policy course was a weeklong trip to Washington, DC, where we met with boundary-spanners who work at the interface of science and policy. In addition to the DC experience, the program provides support for a three-month fellowship at a policy-focused institution.

As a graduate student, it was eye-opening to see scientists in positions outside academia and learn how they were using their science to inform policy decisions. It was also interesting to see different organizational cultures (i.e. between a government agency and advocacy group). Thus far, I have realized the importance of being able to communicate my own research to a broad audience and relay it in a way that is relevant to my audience. I believe it is necessary for scientists to be able to answer the “So what?” about their research.  This exercise not only provides the “big picture” of the research, but also challenges the researcher to communicate the relevance and/or context for the work he or she is doing.

Back at WSU, I continue to work with my advisor along with faculty in other disciplines to develop a truly interdisciplinary dissertation. As an umbrella organization for NSPIRE, the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO) continues to forge relationships among faculty and seemingly disparate campus groups. The collaborative work environment transcending traditional discipline boundaries makes WSU a truly unique place to conduct research.

I am very excited to be visiting DC again for the AGU Science Policy Conference and present a poster on the NSPIRE program. Hopefully, this time I will be catching the blue line in the evening on the same travel day.

-Julian Reyes, NSPIRE Program, IGERT

The views of this article do not reflect those of the AGU as an organization