Global change interdisciplinary Ph.D. program trains the next generation of leaders
Alumni from the interdisciplinary graduate education program returned to the Blacksburg campus to celebrate the program's 10th year with current students and faculty.
In 2013, a group of faculty from several colleges created a program to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration and graduate training.
Ten years and more than 50 Ph.D. graduates later, alumni traveled from as far away as Europe to celebrate the 10-year milestone of the Interfaces of Global Change (IGC) Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program.
“Our alumni are working around the globe confronting critical socio-environmental challenges and have taken a diversity of career paths to include academia, industry, nongovernmental organizations, and government agencies,” said William Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center and associate executive director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.
Like most interdisciplinary Ph.D. programs at Virginia Tech, the IGC is non-degree granting, but provides benefits and training that students do not receive in their degree programs. Through its curriculum, capstone experience, and co-curricular activities that spans five years, the IGC provides novel training in leadership, collaboration, communication, stakeholder engagement and other skills to Ph.D. students from more than 15 home departments.
The skills and knowledge acquired during their time in the IGC program have allowed alumni to excel in various sectors both in the United States and internationally.
“It pushed me to think deeply, refine my identity as a scientist, and broaden my perspective about the role that science plays in society and why,” said Cathy Jachowski, a 2016 graduate who is now an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at Clemson University.
During a dinner banquet for the reunion, Karen DePauw, vice president emerita and dean emerita for graduate education, attributed the graduate program’s success to its faculty, alumni, and students.
“You have made it successful,” DePauw said at the dinner. “Indeed, you have come together as collaborators, as a team. You are paying it forward. You are making a difference.”
The current dean of the graduate school, Aimée Surprenant, said interdisciplinary graduate education programs are of critical importance to the university and its land-grant mission.
“The ways in which the programs fit directly into the United Nations’ sustainable development goals and the ways in which you are making a change in the world is something we are going to shout from the rooftops,” Surprenant said.
The rigorous coursework and program-specific activities of the program align with the four pillars of the Transformative Graduate Education Experience – knowledge, leadership, scholarly inquiry, and social responsibility. The universitywide initiative developed by DePauw aims to push the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and provides the philosophical underpinnings for a truly innovative graduate education experience. Graduates of the program said it’s done just that.
“We gained so many other skills – science communication, outreach, interdisciplinary collaboration, and thinking about stakeholder relations – which are so valuable,” said Sydney Hope '19, a postdoctoral researcher with Hunter College, City University of New York, who is currently researching elephant cognition in Thailand. “I knew that my graduate school training was so much more than just my specific, narrow research topic.”
Ernie Osburn '21, said the skills taught and real-world experience gained make IGC alumni stand out compared with other graduates.
“Those areas include skills for collaboration and interdisciplinary science, linking science to policy, and communication of science to broader audiences, among many other things,” said Osburn, who will begin an assistant professor position at the University of Kentucky in 2024.
Similarly, Jachowski told an audience of current students during an alumni panel that those facets of the program differentiate its graduates in the hiring process.
“While an employer may not have heard of IGC yet, they should understand the value of good science communication skills, an interest in and willingness to form interdisciplinary collaborations, and awareness of the policy-science interface,” Jachowski said. “You are all coming from a phenomenal program that has provided you with skills and training that transcend academics.”
In addition to the dinner banquet, the program hosted a series of events with a focus on promoting connections between IGC alumni and current fellows. These events featured a workshop, an alumni panel, a networking session, and a hike.
The Interfaces of Global Change Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program has done more than generate dozens of leaders around the world. It also formed the foundation for the eventual creation of the Global Change Center, a research center under the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.
“The graduate school’s early generous support helped plant the seed that grew into an innovative, thriving campuswide community that continues to grow,” said Hopkins. “This community helps differentiate us from our peers and attract some of the best faculty and graduate student talent in the world to Virginia Tech. I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what is possible — I can't wait to see what the next 10 years hold.”