Graduate program to focus on disease, cross disciplines

Graduate program to focus on disease, cross disciplines

Melanie Simpson, along with Paul Black, will direct the initiative.
Courtesy
Melanie Simpson, along with Paul Black, will lead the program.

A new graduate training program that spans seven departments across City and East campuses at UNL will launch this year with four student fellows conducting groundbreaking research while learning the skills needed for interdisciplinary research careers.

The Molecular Mechanisms of Disease Graduate Predoctoral Training Program is the brainchild of Melanie Simpson, professor of biochemistry. Simpson said she wanted to create a program that used interdisciplinary research to solve the puzzles of disease in humans, as well as provide a training ground for graduate students who want to pursue a career path of interdisciplinary research.

“As a training program, it’s intended to springboard students into what is becoming a more and more competitive research market, requiring complex multidisciplinary skills. The elements of the program really emphasize interdisciplinary training,” Simpson said.

With the assistance of program co-director Paul Black, professor and chair of the biochemistry department, Simpson submitted a funding proposal to the National Institutes of Health. While the program did not receive funding for the first year, Simpson and Black were encouraged by the high marks the proposal received and were advised by the institute to host the program as a pilot for one year and re-apply. That prompted Simpson to seek funding from UNL, which was granted.

The program officially kicked off Aug. 20 in the East Campus Union with presentations by the four fellows chosen for the inaugural year, four short talks selected from submitted abstracts and a poster session.

Ronnie Green, Harlan Vice Chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, told those in attendance how important such programs are for future teaching and research funding.

“We’ve seen this really heavily in the funding agencies in the last four or five years and it’s going to be more the case in the next decade,” Green said. “They are requiring more systematic, interdisciplinary work that has problem-solving attached to it.”

The departments involved in the program are biochemistry, chemistry, biological sciences, chemical and biomolecular engineering, biological systems engineering and the Department of Food Science and Technology.

As funds become more scarce, Simpson said multidisciplinary programs will become more important to funding agencies.

“The NSF and NIH and other funding agencies are emphasizing that we need to prepare the whole student for a variety of opportunities and futures that each of you envision for your own career path,” she said, adding that the new program is “intended to provide exposure to a variety of different skills needed, from presentation to proposal writing, as well as entrepreneurship, academic editing and grantmanship.”

With the success of the pilot program, Simpson and Black said they hope to receive funding from NIH for subsequent years. As they receive more funding, they will add to the number of fellows accepted into the program.

The first-year fellows are researching diseases such as fatty liver disease, diabetes and Parkinson's Disease.

The fellows selected for the 2013-2014 academic year are: Nicole Milkovic, advised by Mark Wilson in Biochemistry and Robert Powers in chemistry; Annastasia Hyde, advised by Joseph Barycki in biochemistry and Jiantao Guo in chemistry; Catherine Muller, advised by Jens Walter in food science & technology and Ed Harris in biochemistry; and Ryan Matsuda, advised by David Hage and Eric Dodds in chemistry.