Physicists, chemists, materials scientists and engineers often deal with the same problems, but they use different jargon. Talking to and collaborating with each other can be difficult, if not impossible. A new $2.9 million graduate student training program at Cornell, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will help bridge this problematic gap among the disciplines, in an effort to solve common problems a range of scientists face.
The grant was recently awarded by NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program to the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR), which will administer the new Cornell program. The aim of the IGERT grants, according to NSF, is to train the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The CCMR's IGERT fellowships will require graduate students from a variety of scientific fields to become interdisciplinary thinkers. No longer allowed to hide in their field-specific labs, the students will take weeks-long mini-courses - "modules" held throughout the academic year - related to the broad field of nanoscale surfaces and interfaces, taught by faculty in such different fields as chemistry and physics. Additionally, all students will gain exposure to both experimental and computational nanoscale research.
"The modules will give students an introduction to how other people talk and think about the field," said CCMR director Melissa Hines, who wrote the NSF grant and enlisted about 24 faculty members as co-principal investigators. "Students will still get a firm grounding in their core discipline, while the IGERT program will give them an introduction into nanoscale interfaces as well."
The study of nanoscale interfaces and surfaces naturally draws on many different scientific disciplines. Industry and research are increasingly concerned with the field, because of its relationship to the fundamental behavior of many materials.
Along with their classroom modules, IGERT fellows also will participate in interdisciplinary research projects under the mentorship of two faculty members from different fields. These projects will supplement the students' grounding in their core subject areas.
The first six IGERT fellows are at Cornell now, with another six expected to come in every year until the five-year grant runs out, for a total of 30 fellows. Next semester, the students will start their yearlong modules. Not only will they hear from a range of researchers on techniques and limitations of nanoscale science, but they also will take short courses on such skills as public speaking, writing science papers and ethical issues.
These skills, Hines said, are crucial parts of being a scientist but are often overlooked at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Finally, a portion of the IGERT grant will go toward the universitywide goal of increasing diversity on campus, but particularly in science and engineering. With the help of the IGERT funding, a staff recruiter will be hired to develop relationships with such colleges as the University of Puerto Rico and Tuskegee University.