Cell, Volume 147, Issue 6, 1207-1208, 9 December 2011
Interdisciplinary Graduate Education: A Case Study
1 Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, PA 17033, USA
2 Department of Medicine, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, PA 17033, USA
3 Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, PA 17033, USA
4 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, PA 17033, USA
Scientists are increasingly recognizing the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in contemporary biological research, but the majority of graduate students are still trained to conduct research through a traditional approach that focuses on individual disciplines. In a recent issue ofCell, Lorsch and Nichols, 2011 suggested reorganizing life sciences curricula to overcome this disciplinary focus. They proposed an interdisciplinary curriculum with three “nodes” for courses—gene expression, metabolism, and cell fate and function—and two parallel integrative courses that build “connections” between the “nodes” and introduce methodology.
In 2006, the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies at Penn State College of Medicine charged a Core Curriculum Planning Team with reviewing and reorganizing our graduate core curriculum. The goal was to design a curriculum that integrated fundamental principles of biomedical sciences while also stressing experimental approaches that lead to an understanding of these principles. Over the next year, the Team worked diligently to design and implement a curriculum that met these challenges.
Two key decisions led this Team to propose a curriculum similar to that suggested by Lorsch and Nichols. First, members from each basic science department (i.e., Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Microbiology and Immunology, Neural and Behavioral Sciences, and Pharmacology) were appointed to the Team, ensuring input from multiple disciplinary foci. Second, the Team recommended three core courses for the curriculum rather than four as in the previous core.
The contrast in content is evident from the different course titles in the old and new curricula (Table 1). The previous courses were titled Genetic Analysis, Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry, reflecting the disciplinary focus of material in each course. In contrast, the three courses in the redesigned curriculum are Flow of Cellular Information (“Flow”; similar to gene expression), Regulation of Cellular and Systemic Energy Metabolism (“Metabolism”), and Cell and Systems Biology (“Cell”; similar to cell fate and function).