Technological watch

An integrated model for interdisciplinary graduate education: Computation and mathematics for biological networks

AbstractThe current challenges at the forefront of data-enabled science and engineering require interdisciplinary solutions. Yet most traditional doctoral programs are not structured to support successful interdisciplinary research. Here we describe the design of and students’ experiences in the COMBINE (Computation and Mathematics for Biological Networks) interdisciplinary graduate program at the University of Maryland. COMBINE focuses on the development and application of network science methods to biological systems for students from three primary domains: life sciences, computational/engineering sciences, and mathematical/physical sciences. The program integrates three established models (T-shaped, pi-shaped and shield-shaped) for interdisciplinary training. The program components largely fall into three categories: (1) core coursework that provides content expertise, communication, and technical skills, (2) discipline-bridging elective courses in the two COMBINE domains that complement the student’s home domain, (3) broadening activities such as workshops, symposiums, and formal peer-mentoring groups. Beyond these components, the program builds community through both formal and informal networking and social events. In addition to the interactions with other program participants, students engage with faculty in several ways beyond the conventional adviser framework, such as the requirement to select a second out-of-field advisor, listening to guest speakers, and networking with faculty through workshops. We collected data through post-program surveys, interviews and focus groups with students, alumni and faculty advisors. Overall, COMBINE students and alumni reported feeling that the program components supported their growth in the three program objectives of Network Science & Interdisciplinarity, Communication, and Career Preparation, but also recommended ways to improve the program. The value of the program can be seen not only through the student reports, but also through the students’ research products in network science which include multiple publications and presentations. We believe that COMBINE offers an effective model for integrated interdisciplinary training that can be readily applied in other fields.

Publication date: 28/09/2021

Author: Kelsey E. McKee,  Daniel Serrano,  Michelle Girvan,  Gili Marbach-Ad




This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870292.