At the UA, faculty and staff involved in Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs persistently gain external grant funding and produce publications and presentations about research designed to make important advances in a range of disciplines. Among them are GIDPs in American Indian studies, applied mathematics, cancer biology, genetics, global change and physiological sciences. (Photo credit: UA RedBar)
At the UA, faculty and staff involved in Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs persistently gain external grant funding and produce publications and presentations about research designed to make important advances in a range of disciplines. Among them are GIDPs in American Indian studies, applied mathematics, cancer biology, genetics, global change and physiological sciences. (Photo credit: UA RedBar)

Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs Build Collaboration, Productivity

Across campus, UA students and faculty in the sciences and social sciences are engaged in novel research in 15 Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs, which are considered the "crown jewels" of the University.
May 28, 2013
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The UA maintains 15 Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs, called GIDPs. They are in: American Indian studies, applied biosciences, applied mathematics, arid lands resource sciences, biomedical engineering, cancer biology, cognitive science (as a minor), entomology and insect science, genetics, global change (as a minor), neuroscience, physiological sciences, remote sensing and spatial analysis (as a minor), second language acquisition and teaching, and also statistics.

 

Also read Q&A: The Importance of the UA's Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs on the UA Blog.

Reece Mazade, who also was named a  2013-14 Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation Scholar, came to the UA specifically because of its GIDP in physiological sciences. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
Reece Mazade, who also was named a 2013-14 Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation Scholar, came to the UA specifically because of its GIDP in physiological sciences. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
Gina Stuart-Richard is a doctoral student in the American Indian Studies GIDP. Her research focuses on the history of American Indian removal, allotment and assimilation as well as issues related to identity and uses of ancestral lands, among other topics. (Photo credit: Mark Thaler, Sr./Arizona Health Sciences Center)
Gina Stuart-Richard is a doctoral student in the American Indian Studies GIDP. Her research focuses on the history of American Indian removal, allotment and assimilation as well as issues related to identity and uses of ancestral lands, among other topics. (Photo credit: Mark Thaler, Sr./Arizona Health Sciences Center)
Gabriella Wolff, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience GIDP, investigates the evolution of olfactory systems in crustaceans to better inform the study of brain evolution among arthropods. (Photo credit: Mark S. Thaler, BioCommunications/ AHSC)
Gabriella Wolff, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience GIDP, investigates the evolution of olfactory systems in crustaceans to better inform the study of brain evolution among arthropods. (Photo credit: Mark S. Thaler, BioCommunications/ AHSC)
GIDP student Elizabeth Salvagio Campbell is working to advance research in the area of visual perception. "Vision is complex; I want to understand how the brain transforms light entering the eye into the structured meaningful world we experience." Through her research, she intends to understand how object perception develops. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)
GIDP student Elizabeth Salvagio Campbell is working to advance research in the area of visual perception. "Vision is complex; I want to understand how the brain transforms light entering the eye into the structured meaningful world we experience." Through her research, she intends to understand how object perception develops. (Photo credit: Beatriz Verdugo/UANews)

Through advanced interdisciplinary programs at the University of Arizona, students and faculty are engaged in novel work to answer questions critical to the state and nation.

Teams are working to improve biomedical imaging methods for stronger disease diagnostics, find ways to prevent cells from resisting cancer treatment, help people to acquire new languages, and understand biological vulnerability to climate changes.

These are just a few examples of the broad range of important and impactful research occurring in the Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs, known as GIDPs, many of which are considered the "crown jewels" of the UA.

"What I think is so special about the GIDPs is that they arise out of a grassroots process," said Leslie Tolbert, the UA's senior vice president for research. "GIDPs are spectacular ways to bring faculty together for educating students who can cross boundaries seamlessly."

The first, the Genetics GIDP, was founded at the UA in 1964 when such interdisciplinary programs were rare.

The programs are distinctive in that faculty from at least three different colleges must come together to establish and sustain them, relying heavily on departments for financial support.

Also, faculty members must analyze student and market demand for such programs, which require their own courses, curricula, bylaws and plans for budgeting.

"There is structure, but there also is great flexibility," said Heddwen Brooks, an associate professor of physiology who chairs the Physiological Sciences GIDP. "The benefit is that the faculty can steer the curriculum and develop different courses that allow students to do the work that they want."

Today, the UA maintains 15 such programs. These programs are highly regarded and nationally respected. They are driven by engaged University faculty members and attract top-performing master's and doctoral students.

"They are all high-quality and well-known programs. People know about them because they show such excellence," said Andrew Carnie, the UA Graduate College interim dean and faculty director of the GIDPs.

"Research is at the heart of the Graduate College, and using research to solve real-world problems is what graduate education means," Carnie said. "While this is true across graduate programs all over campus, it is especially clear in the case of the GIDPs."

Enhancing UA's Interdisciplinary Core

Other important values and benefits of such graduate programs – which serve about 10 percent of all doctoral students at the UA – reside in both the structure of the programs and the research being produced.

Reece Mazade, like many of his GIDP peers, came to the UA largely because of a GIDP.

A Physiological Sciences GIDP student like Mazade gains training for careers in instruction and research, especially in medicine, engineering and science. But the program also emphasizes that students should be able to easily navigate such disciplines for the benefit of health and medical advances.

The program has a strong track record, placing its graduates in excellent academic positions as well as biotechnology, medical and pharmaceutical industries, among other professions.

Mazade, who is intent on a career as an academic scientist improving technologies to enhance people's lives, works in the Eggers Laboratory of Retinal Neurophysiology. There, he investigates how light signals are regulated and how we can see in a constantly changing environment.

In addition to specifically studying the retina, he also is collaborating with others who have expertise in neurological systems and other biological mechanisms.

"You want to study some intricate mechanism or how something occurs, but you have to be able to relate that back to the larger system," he said. "It helps me to keep everything in a big picture perspective."

With more than 600 faculty members across campus engaged in GIDP, the possibilities to engage in cross-college collaboration leads researchers to not merely ask different questions but come upon creative and novel answers.

For example, in the Entomology and Insect Science GIDP, students and faculty are engaged in interdisciplinary approaches meant to enhance human health and agricultural advances. Some are cultivating an improved understanding of what genetic and microbial determinants help improve honey bee pollination, while others are advancing knowledge about how disruption of ant habitats affect native and invasive ant species.   

Those in the Arid Lands and Resource Sciences GIDP are greatly expanding what is known and understood about arid and semi-arid lands, like the Sonoran Desert. Investigations include improving remote sensing and early-warning systems for disasters like famine; the understanding of urban development and growth impacts; also the management and policies aimed at populations living in such lands, among many other topics.

In fact, Carnie noted that it's the only doctoral program of its kind in the U.S. directly addressing the complex problems associated with the sustainability of arid lands.

Carnie also said that graduates in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, or SLAT, GIDP are in huge demand in Arizona and across the nation. The driving force? The proliferation of non-English speaking students and the need to greatly enhance mechanisms for learning additional language.

In the program, students and faculty are enhancing practice and theory, including instructional design and program development toward helping speakers of Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, among others, better acquire a second language.

Also, many GIDP faculty members are leading researchers in their field, often internationally known and renowned scholars.

"There are impressive students and faculty who would not come to the UA if we didn't have these interdisciplinary programs," Tolbert said.

Among the GIDP faculty are:

  • Janis Burt, a physiology professor at the UA College of Medicine, who landed another $2.6 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in 2012 to continue training scientists studying cardiovascular malfunctions and diseases, the leading causes of death in western societies. The UA has applied for, and received, the award every five years since 1969.
  • UA geneticists, including GIDP faculty member Michael Hammer, discovered the oldest known genetic branch of the human Y chromosome.
  • Regents' Professor Carol Barnes, who holds the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging, received $5 million in 2011 from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation to support the investigation of effects of age and disease on the brain.
  • Jennifer Barton, who heads the biomedical engineering department and is an associate vice president for research, has conducted foundational research that has led to advances in the medical field, such as the development of a therapeutic laser used to detect pre-cancerous cells.
  • Diana Liverman, who co-directs the UA Institute of the Environment, and Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research director Thomas Swetnam and Thomas Bever, a linguistics professor, who have been been named Regents' Professors, among others.
  • Paul Blowers, an associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering, and Judith Bronstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who have both been named UA Distinguished Professors.
  • Patricia Hoyer, a physiology professor, who earned the Society of Toxicology Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology specialty section's Lifetime Scientific Achievement Award for her major contributions and influential work in the field.  
  • UA professor Walter W. Piegorsch became one of the first in the nation to gain professional statistician accreditation from the American Statistical Association, a benchmark for the GIDP in statistics.
  • And Arid Lands and Resource Sciences faculty members who launched AQ-UASEC, a center for excellence for the study of water security and policy outreach initiatives.

Student, Faculty Benefits Abound

By the end of the 2012 academic year, the 522 students, along with some of their supporting faculty members, involved in UA GIDPs produced 169 research publications and another 248 presentations.

"That is where you see real innovation happening," Carnie said.

"We have a very good record of our students publishing with their advisers, publishing with their committees and also presenting at conferences," he said. "All of that represents the novel thinking, and not just because these are young scientists, social scientists or humanists. It's because they are looking at things in new ways."

Elizabeth Salvagio Campbell, a doctoral candidate in the Cognitive Science GIDP Minor, is combining studies in cognition and neural systems to study vision in infants, investigating the role of experience and context in determining object perception.

"We really don't understand how perception works. In the 1970s, computer scientists though they could make a machine that could see like a human. It's been 40 years and they still haven't figured that out," Salvagio Campbell said. "But there wasn't much communication between different disciplines."

That is possible through the GIDP.

"Vision is really complicated, and it is still in the basic research stages. Understanding what sort of information helps us perceive the world can help us understand how vision works," Salvagio Campbell said.

"In the GIDP, not only do we talk to other people who are in cognitive psychology but also to vision scientists in other areas; we are talking to people who understand primate vision and who are investigating the neural anatomy of the visual cortex," she said. "These are all essential for perception. We have to be able to talk about the commonalities across our different areas of research. There is a huge interaction, and not just in psychology, but all those other domains."

The same was true for Zachary Brooks.

When Brooks began considering doctoral programs, his attention fell to SLAT. The GIDPs have high demands – students must be especially proactive self-starters to identify appropriate collaborators, for example – and Brooks became invested in applying.

"It is a program that is open to growth because you really are allowed to explore lots of things within the GIDP," said Brooks, who also is president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council. He has since began studying linguistics and psychology and is chiefly concerned with advancing applied psycholinguistics.

"I also think that we as graduate students come into the program being able to offer services to the University," Brooks said, noting that students in GIDPs also teach courses. "But we don't just fill gaps because we have actual teaching experiences."

Tolbert said training individuals to think in ways not confined by disciplines is especially necessary to improve research and, ultimately, improve lives.

GIDPs offer an alternative to discipline-specific research, and between the two, new knowledge is advanced.

Just as it is important to continue the tradition of expanding foundational understanding of biology, mathematics, engineering principles and language, it is important to offer opportunities to work across these fields to address questions that require that breadth.

"We want to be able to take advantage of new knowledge in the traditional disciplines and bring it to bear in novel ways to study otherwise intractable problems," Tolbert said. "Discipline-specific and interdisciplinary research and education are not competitive, but complementary."