Maryland's Multi-Disciplinary Graduate Program in Life Sciences  

In the 19th century, when Pasteur and Nobel were novices in a profession virtually without history or guideposts, science flourished in an open arena. Its practitioners were energized by the unknown, and by the need to explore well beyond experiments in their own laboratories. Then, as scientific endeavor matured, research became less integrated, possibly as the result of a basic blueprint of information that made collaboration less imperative.

All that changed, however, with the sequencing of the genome, and the explosion of biomedical knowledge demanding that scientists—and educators—begin to think across disciplinary boundaries. That’s exactly what the University of Maryland Graduate Program in Life Sciences (GPILS) is all about.


Science is changing and becoming more multi-disciplinary,” says Margaret M. McCarthy, PhD, assistant dean for graduate studies, professor of physiology, and director of the GPILS, who explains that the restructured initiative embraces a dynamic approach to education in the life sciences. “Traditional departments can no longer define research areas,” McCarthy explains. “There is an issue of redundancy when education is restricted to departments. In that scenario, you would have cancer biology taught in both physiology and pharmacology, and students in those classes would have less opportunity to interface.”

The case for interaction among faculty and students is made by a GPILS core course involving 55 faculty members from 12 departments and four schools, broadening considerably the opportunity for both student and faculty collaboration. Each of the major degree-granting GPILS programs has its own admission criteria and standards, and includes faculty from multiple departments, but are independent of departments. They encompass the entire range of biomedical research, from the basics of protein structure and molecular biology to integrative systems physiology, virology, and vaccine development. Included as well are behavior, cognition, population based genetics, prospective studies, and the environment’s impact on health.

“From the start, the dean made it clear our purpose in developing the GPILS was not related to administrative efficiency,” McCarthy says. “Our directive was to put together the very best graduate program. ”

It would seem they succeeded. While still in its youth, the program has resulted in an 85 percent increase in applications, paralleled by a higher level in the maturity, academic standing and research experience of applicants. Students matriculating in the Fall of 2007 showed a 77 point advantage in GRE scores over those matriculating in 2006.

A Meeting of the Minds

Such early success is not the spoils of a hastily conceived endeavor, however. The GPILS is a result of careful planning followed by meticulously organized execution. Asaf Keller, PhD, professor of anatomy and neurobiology, chaired the faculty committee charged with developing the program. “It took us almost two years,” Keller says. “We were a cross section of personalities with a single objective. We debated every component, from structure to the philosophical direction.

Should we group all disciplines into a single program, or create a large number of programs? There were more than 10 programs to be incorporated within the new structure. We wound up with five, and a total faculty of more than 100. “More important than our committee’s recommendations was their implementation by GPILS leadership, particularly that of Peg McCarthy, and the strong support of our vice dean, Dr. Bruce Jarrell,” Keller says.

Martha M. McCarthy, PhD with GPILS Program Manager Tom McHugh
Martha M. McCarthy, PhD with GPILS Program Manager Tom McHugh

Addressing some of the challenges, he says, “Heading a program brings with it a degree of power that is understandably difficult for some faculty members to give up. But we got through it, and I think all would agree the program we have in place was well worth the effort.”

He adds that neuroscience, a particularly strong program that is in itself interdisciplinary, became the model on which to organize other disciplines. Keller notes the faculty committee was motivated by the need to move beyond a narrow educational focus to a contemporary need for programs that answer the more probing questions within science today. “Students are the best barometer of our success,” he says. “We use scores as one of the metrics to screen applicants, and since the reorganization, we have seen increasing numbers of students with strong interests in understanding and curing disease processes. Few come here with the fundamental questions they had in the past. We are admitting more students interested in psychiatry, drug abuse and other issues they see around them”

Commenting that most students wind up doing something completely different from what they originally planned, Keller believes one can attribute that to the program. “They are exposed to a borderless education, with multiple mentors, a program that doesn’t pigeon-hole a student,” he says.

McCarthy lauds Keller’s exhaustive commitment to the formation of the program. “Asaf’s leadership guided an opinionated, sometimes fractious group toward consensus, with very clear recommendations to the dean,” she says. “One measure of his success is that it is his vision that was implemented.”
If student ratings are any indication of a program’s success, the GPILS is scoring an A plus on every count. Students, some of whom have had experience in departmental programs, are quick to cite the versatility, integration, and research opportunities at the University of Maryland. Many say they are unexpectedly pleased by the availability of so many professors with such varied professional backgrounds.

Jackie Schwarz is a PhD candidate in the neuroscience program who plans to do her post-doctoral work at The Rockefeller University. Her now completed research at the University of Maryland studied sexual differentiation in the brain, looking at the impact of early hormone exposure that occurs exclusively in the male brain.

Schwarz is a profoundly serious student with high expectations for a successful career in academic science. She won a National Institutes of Health (NIH) pre-doctorate award, making her recent work at the GPILS self funded. She received a $500 Florence Hasseltine Award, and best oral presentation for the University of Maryland Graduate Conference, as well as a young investigator award for a steroid and gene expression conference in Colorado, where she gave a presentation. She gives high marks to the GPILS for motivating her interest in the area of development. “I have benefitted from the help of so many people here,” she says. “They have given me a tremendous background in neuroendocrinology, but also have helped me become competent in synaptic physiology and other aspects of neuroscience. In any other program, I would have had limited exposure within my immediate field.”

Twenty years ago, a professor could expect students to become relatively well grounded in their specific area of science, and to be familiar with the literature on various subjects within their fields. Not so today. Thomas W. Abrams, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology, and chair of the GPILS curriculum committee, points to the number of papers published on one topic, protein kinases, in recent years. “There were 16 papers on kinases published in 1975,” he says. “In 2005, there were 8,600. Literature has mushroomed. It isn’t reasonable to expect students to read all that is available on any one subject today. We need to be thinking differently, and we need to teach students differently.”

Looking back to the curriculum committee he chaired in the early days of the GPILS, Abrams says, “We had a group of outstanding educators from diverse backgrounds—from cancer research, to neuroscience, molecular medicine, electrophysiology, and biophysics. Many of us didn’t know each other at the beginning, but it didn’t take us long to adopt a relatively philosophical approach to creating the curriculum. We stood back and asked what is was that we had to do to design an innovative and challenging program for our graduate students.”

The explosion of recent scientific knowledge, the realization that it is impossible for a student today to absorb all that is published, or to know everything there is to know about a research topic guided the committee in its efforts to challenge students beyond the absorption of knowledge. “We decided it was more important for students to read literature critically than to master bodies of knowledge,” Abrams says. “If we emphasize facts, we can only expose them to a minuscule of those available, and we will not be training them to be effective scientists.”

According to Abrams, there is a critical reason for traditional program change that goes to the heart of the GPILS initiative. He believes that, within the science community, many researchers, even mature scientists, don’t really understand the process of asking scientific questions. “Even when it comes to defending their dissertations, too many students have not thought deeply about what it means to ask the central questions of interest, ” he says. “They may be getting results, getting papers published, perhaps getting grants funded. But they stop there, and don’t ask the really important questions.”

He reasons that the inability of students to effectively ask scientific questions is the result of educational models that do not teach how to test scientific hypotheses. The GPILS core course does just this. It addresses the issue of testing hypotheses, and how to ask the probing questions that are the essence of good science.

Dudley Strickland, PhD
Dudley Strickland, PhD

Dudley Strickland, PhD, professor of surgery and physiology, and program director for the GPILS program in molecular medicine, reports that the program gives students exposure to more faculty than traditional department-based programs. For example, although Maryland has a strong physiology department, it has about 25 faculty members, compared to more than 100 biomedical researchers in his GPILS program. “We can actually custom tailor a curriculum, based on a student’s needs,” he says. “For instance, a student interested in the genetics of cancer can take the cancer biology courses, as well as electives in the genetics area, and do lab rotations that provide the technical expertise.”

He points as well to the advantages science students have in their proximity to the university’s institute of genome sciences, which is at the forefront in the sequencing of microorganisms. “This is an extraordinary genomics program,” he says. “We have investigators using fruit flies, C-elegans and zebra fish, and looking at bacteria that reside in the human organism. Students have access to state-of-the-art sequencing facilities and experts in bio-informatics. This is all very exciting for students because it’s new.”

Strickland explains students also have access to outstanding core facilities. They can work in the core NMR facility, which at most universities is available only to select faculty. Another available core facility is the proteomics lab, where proteins are identified in biological fluids. Instead of shipping their samples elsewhere, students can have one-on-one interaction with scientists who help them in their identification of a specific protein.

The Celebrity of Molecular Medicine
The availability of these facilities and the interaction with top scientists working in newly emerging scientific arenas underlines the popularity of molecular medicine. Strickland says this is due in part to advances during the past 25 years. “Now that we have a variety of genomes sequenced, we are looking at genetic variation, and investigating how disease occurs at the molecular level,” he says. “We’re going to see a tremendous progression of molecular medicine in the next 25 years—and our students are positioning themselves to take a lead in it.”
High on the list of reasons students with the best academic credentials are applying to the University of Maryland program is the opportunity to do important research. Commenting on the proteomics lab as an example of how the GPILS enables exceptional student research capabilities, Strickland says the student can participate at his or her own level of interest.

“If a student just needs the instrumentation for a lab project, he or she can observe,” he says. “But if a student really wants to learn the technology, and is interested in making a career in proteomics, that student has a chance to work side-by-side with the pros. There aren’t many places where that is possible.”

The element of quality student research is a double-barreled plus factor at the GPILS, where it enhances collaborative opportunities for both students and faculty. Keller says the program is seeing a significant number of students with extensive research backgrounds, many of whom have done research at the NIH and Centers for Disease Control & Prevention while undergraduates. “Students are becoming our research colleagues,” Keller says. “They allow us to be more interdisciplinary ourselves. It is often students who make the link between GPILS research and research being done in other laboratories.”

Asaf Keller, PhD
Asaf Keller, PhD

He reports that a student interested in the mechanisms of pain being studied inthe Keller lab found another faculty member with similar interest approached from a different perspective. “He put the two of us together,” Keller says. “Now, we’re working together, and collaborating on papers and grant applications.”

McCarthy reports that she too has benefitted from student research. McCarthy reports the GPILS is responsible for her interaction with a researcher doing work in prostaglandins similar to her own research. “Amy Fulton is a world class expert, studying prostaglandins in cancer research,” she says. “Neither of us knew of the other’s work, but we’ve since connected, and she is serving on the thesis committee of my student, Christopher Wright, who is making important discoveries relative to the impact of prostaglandins on normal brain development.

“I cannot over emphasize the importance of our graduate programs to our research mission,” McCarthy says. “Our students are a highly skilled work force. We have the highest standards and select them very carefully. We’re making an investment in each student we accept, and the return on that investment is considerable because of the research they perform.”

Student communication is a high priority at the GPILS, where internet and intranet programs pair with one-on-one interaction in keeping students not only attuned to what is happening, but better prepared in curricula.
Tom McHugh, program manager, refers to available technology that allows students to go on line immediately following a lecture to download a movie file of the lecture for study sessions, or an MP3 file for Ipod use as a study aid.
The program doesn’t rely on electronic communication alone in responding to student concerns however. A seminar series featuring PhDs, MD/PhDs and DDS/PhDs who are working outside academia, provides students with information on careers available to scientists with their skills. Held during luncheon sessions, they provide an ideal opportunity for students to engage the speaker on a personal level.

“We have invited speakers from the FDA, pharmaceutical companies, and in patent law,” McHugh reports. “We’ve had editors of scholarly magazines and those in venture capital. What we want our students to realize is that there is power in their training here. When they leave, they will be well prepared for the academic path, but will have many other options as well.”

Communication with applicants is taken seriously as well. A complex internet/intranet system has ability to track prospective students from application to matriculation. An original application becomes part of a personal profile where GRE scores, transcripts and letters of reference can be scanned as pdfs and made available to faculty.

“This makes it easier for programs to share materials,” McHugh explains. “It also helps in our recruitment of top students. We have information chat rooms, where a prospective student can connect with faculty and current students. Depending on an applicant’s questions and interest, he or she can move into a virtual chat room to talk with others in that field.”

Looking ahead, Keller believes that the strength which the program has achieved through flexibility will sustain it in the future. “That being said, it would be my recommendation that the program remain a dynamic one, open to change,” he says. “What we originally decided was the right organizational structure may not serve us down the road. Priorities change. Science changes. This program was created to be flexible, and that flexibility will be important to us in the future.”

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