WMU News

NSF gives $2.8 million to new, innovative doctoral training program

April 10, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- The National Science Foundation has awarded close to $2.8 million to an innovative new doctoral research and training program being offered through Western Michigan University and 11 other participating institutions.

The Biosphere Atmosphere Research and Training program, dubbed BART by organizers, will take a multi-disciplinary approach to study how changes in atmospheric conditions can profoundly affect living organisms and how those altered organisms can, in turn, affect the atmosphere.

The novel, residential program will train students to address a range of key questions about how the biosphere and atmosphere interact. But students will have to look outside their own disciplines into other fields to search for answers.

"The National Science Foundation is trying to advance science and create a research field that doesn't exist by combining disciplines that already do exist," says Dr. Steven Bertman, a WMU associate professor of chemistry who helped design the model program. "They want to build bridges between disciplines."

The program is being billed as a "total immersion experience" in which students spend two summers at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston. There they will take part in a series of education activities involving ongoing research programs that will prepare them to conduct their own pioneering research. Students will continue their training at their home institutions during the academic year.

The proposal has been in the works for more than two years. The $2.8 million grant is actually awarded to the U-M Biological Station. WMU will receive about $2.5 million of that amount to coordinate the project.

In addition to using the station's advanced facilities, students will work with faculty mentors, who will guide them in forming a new cadre of scientists prepared to address complex issues in the 21st century.

The grant is through the NSF's Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training program. Each BART student receives a $15,000 yearly stipend, funding for tuition and fees, travel support, and support for equipment and supplies. In addition to 10 intensive weeks at the biological station and conducting research, students will take part in group Internet discussion and data analysis and attend two BART conferences and two national conferences.

Other participating institutions include Bowling Green State University, Indiana University, Michigan Technological University, Ohio University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, the University of Miami, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia and Washington State University.

The wide range of topics students could study include the effects of mercury deposition in the Great Lakes, elevated carbon dioxide levels or high concentrations of ground level ozone.

"One of the fastest ways to advance science in this country is to identify fruitful mergers of existing disciplines ­ to spot interdisciplinary areas ­ that would generate terrific synergisms between what we recognize as existing, separate disciplines," says Dr. David Karowe, a WMU associate professor of biological sciences. He also helped design the program and has studied the effects of elevated carbon dioxide levels on plants and animals.

Karowe and Bertman say that the BART program was fortunate to receive NSF funding. Between 500 and 600 proposals were submitted to the agency, of which 21 were selected. Of those 21, all except the BART program involve just one or, in a few cases, two institutions.

"It's a very complicated program," Bertman says of BART. "It involves 12 institutions and at least 25 different faculty members from those 12 institutions. I believe it's considered an experiment on NSF's part -- 'Let's see if they can do it.' ­ because it's very different from all of the other grants they have awarded. It's a major challenge."

The first class begins this summer. In all, 38 students will take part in the program over the next five years. All will do two-year fellowships except one student, who will receive one year of training.

How many students will come from each participating university is unknown. Those who come up with the best proposals will be chosen.

Bertman and Karowe are hoping the program will act as a recruiting tool for graduate students. There are signs that this may already be paying off.

"We've already had some inquiries from students as far away as Florida, saying that they were interested in coming to Western to work on this program," Bertman says. "If I was a graduate student, I'd be tickled about this. I'd be very excited."

Students won't be the only ones who benefit. Faculty from all 12 universities can become involved along with their graduate students.

"When we sat down and conceived this, we wanted to study these multi-disciplinary interactions, but we don't have a clue how to do it because each of us is trained as a disciplinary scientist," Bertman says. "What we're hoping is that, by the very virtue of the different culture in which they will be trained as professional scientists, they will in fact be teaching us."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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