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National Research Council (US) Chemical Sciences Roundtable. Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences: Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.

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Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences: Issues for the 21st Century: Report of a Workshop.

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13Across the Disciplines: Center-based Graduate Education and Research

J. Michael White

University of Texas at Austin

Chemistry has been called the “central science” and, within the energy regime thermally accessible to anything dealing with molecules and materials, I suppose it is so among the natural sciences. Assuming this is the case, one can then argue that chemistry can also be called the “decentralized science”— decentralized in the context of those traditions we all know about that name, separate, and distinguish among groups of people, organizations, departments, and the like.

For example, my own research area, the study of surfaces and interfaces, has had an “up and down” popularity within the tribe of physical chemists over the last 100 years. After Langmuir, the tribe of surface chemists became nearly extinct, but was then resurrected in the 1960s. I still remember going through the American Chemical Society (ACS) Directory of Graduate Research in the mid-1960s looking for chemists focusing their research on surface and interface science. I counted them with the fingers of one hand. And I remember arguing for incorporation of the name “surface chemistry” into the program names within the chemistry division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the late 1970s. It takes time for these cultures to change. From my point of view, our tribe needs to be at the forefront in every conceivable way—organizing and reorganizing ourselves on a periodic basis to avoid becoming a hopelessly arthritic culture. The 11-year life, with an enforced sunset, of the interdisciplinary NSF Science and Technology Centers (STCs) program1 is a reasonable timescale for reinvention and reorganization.

In my own case, moving from gas-phase reactions and dynamics to surface reactions and dynamics required a modest bucking of culture in the late 1960s. Today when I look at promising young Ph.D. graduates, two questions I always ask are: “Could they reinvent themselves and could they do it in two years? and “Would they look forward to doing it?” Many of my colleagues in the microelectronics industry tell me they need to reinvent themselves at the master's degree level every 18 months, just like Moore's law for chips, if they are to maintain a productive and up-to-date industrial career. It is my conviction that such an attitude needs to be instilled in our graduate education enterprise: “Look forward to reinventing yourself at least every decade.” I have seen that anticipation among the young faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, and I see it among the young faculty at this meeting. Let me say to you young faculty members, press on and be very inclusive engaging your colleagues from other sciences, business, and humanities—and plan to reinvent yourselves every 5 to 10 years. For the older ones among us, they say, “You can't teach an old dog new tricks,” but I think it can be done, provided we starve the old dog for a time.

For about a decade, I have directed an NSF STC dealing with the synthesis, growth, and analysis of electronic materials, an 11-year interdisciplinary program that has integrated graduate research, and the education that attends it, through collaborations between faculty in electrical engineering, chemistry, physics, and chemical engineering.

Why a center? For one reason, as in many other areas of science, engineering, and technology, there is a host of interesting questions that are not resolvable or even addressable by the traditional isolated individual-investigator mode of attack that has traditionally characterized my own work and most of my tribe. What we need for complex problems is a group of strong, capable individual investigators, i.e., those quite capable of operating successfully on their own, who come coherently together focused for a time with resources sufficient to attack complex problems—many of which centrally and intrinsically involve molecular-level chemistry coupled with all those complexities that link them to integrated systems—something like the words of the prophetic vision in the “valley of the dry bones.” But rather than thigh bones and leg bones being linked, we might say that the atoms connect to the molecules that connect to the nanoscale structures that connect to the mesoscale structures that connect the devices and cells that we make and use—in other words, the fundamental chemistry of integrated systems. In my view it is the nature of the problems that should drive interdisciplinary center-based research. Funding center-based research for a decade timescale, as in the NSF STCs program, focuses for a sufficiently long period of time the necessary faculty, facilities, funds, and students—something highly unlikely for single-investigator support. Developing central multiuser facilities is one critical benefit of center-based funding. Regarding naturally multidisciplinary research problems, there are, for graduate education in chemistry, wonderful opportunities and challenges in materials sciences, optical sciences, health sciences, neurosciences, and environmental sciences. Chemistry would do well to define itself for the purposes of graduate research education “in” rather than “out” of these arenas.

In the case of our center, we have targeted a number of fundamental issues regarding how the properties of molecules (precursors) are related to the properties of electronic material thin films grown from them, how to make novel multi-element films with desired electronic and optoelectronic properties, how to control and analyze films as they grow, and how to link chemical properties with electrical properties of interfaces. Our progress has relied on many long-term collaborations among faculty, students, and postdocs from chemistry, chemical engineering, physics, and electrical engineering. Collaborations that, once initiated through the STC, have developed complementary funding that will live on and evolve well past the sunset of the STC.

Again, why a center? For another reason, the professional lives of most of our graduates will involve defining, addressing, and assessing often complex issues that benefit enormously from multidisciplinary education and multidisciplinary experience. While course work is of some value, graduate training in this direction is, in my view, best accomplished when graduate students, well trained through fundamental course work in each of their various disciplines, work productively alongside each other and communicate daily. We have realized this kind of “hands-on” education with many of the 25 students supported directly by our STC. We do this by engaging them in interdisciplinary research that forms the bulk of their Ph.D. dissertations. At a lower level, but one that has had considerable benefit, our in-house student-based scientific meetings twice each year have provided a regular forum for exchanging ideas and information at the graduate student level. From this perspective, center-based research programs can be splendid vehicles for preparing graduate students for dealing capably with the broad-based, problem-solving situations they are likely to find in their professional lives.

What is the response of the students and potential employers? As usual, the response is dependent on the quality of the students, but it is clear, for example, that our students who have worked jointly between chemistry and electrical engineering are uniquely qualified to engage in chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process research and development at major microelectronics firms, and they are doing so successfully. This is particularly true for our STC postdoctoral colleagues, each of whom has a research job description involving interdisciplinary accountability. Not only are these graduate students and postdocs uniquely qualified, they are uniquely attractive to commercial firms. This comes as one result of their having dealt in some depth with both molecular-level chemistry issues and device-performance issues. As a group leader from one company recently put it: “This Ph.D. student is uniquely attractive to my company because she is comfortable with both the chemistry and the electronics aspects of CVD processing and can walk right into our work environment and contribute immediately.”

For how long will such an education be of great value? To the extent that it encourages individuals to think in terms of life-long education in new areas (reinventing oneself), it lasts for a lifetime.

What are the barriers to center-based graduate education? Perhaps the question can be changed to, What are the issues? As in all cultures, they exist and, in my opinion, should and will always exist. These tensions and struggles can actually be of great benefit. Academic deans, charged with representing their faculty, have college funding and course work concerns. Department chairs rightly have concerns regarding faculty loyalties. Faculty members have concerns regarding independence and promotion. Center directors have concerns regarding sunset issues with staff and central facilities while striving to develop effective, flexible, and evolving infrastructure.

Since most discussions about the future of graduate education and research in chemistry presume a supply of students, the following are worthwhile questions, in my opinion:

  • In 10 years, who will comprise our graduate student population?
  • Compared with their other options, why would U.S. undergraduates want to go to graduate school in a chemistry department?
  • In the United States, are not our graduate chemistry departments competing over a shrinking pool?
  • If we were to set out to make sure that the number of students interested in entering graduate work in chemistry met the needs and demands of our country, what tasks would we undertake?

The last question offers one opportunity for considering how to expand the pool of talent and, since it is a key part of our STC work, I address it here. What would we do to make sure that a decade from now that adequate numbers of students enter graduate work in chemistry? Among other things, we would take initiatives to open our universities to our communities in nontoken, long-term, sustainable ways that bring, for example, sixth graders, especially those from communities of poverty, through the educational system, helping them maintain a serious interest in undergraduate education. We would see them develop the skills to compete and make productive contributions to our society. In other words we would undertake a sustainable, long-term, steady, and low-level shepherding role, from sixth grade to undergraduate degree, for young men and women from our communities of poverty.

That is one precollege educational goal that our science and technology center takes seriously and has included as part of our charter. Our Young Scientists Program has enjoyed nine years of success, starting in a single school and now involving eight elementary schools. As one measure of its success, this program is being taken over cooperatively by the University of Texas and the Austin Independent School District. Significant numbers of students from elementary schools in generally financially poor areas of Austin are being assisted in responsible ways to succeed in academic life.

What is the Young Scientists Program? It is a hands-on, sixth-grade, student-focused, and science-based classroom program designed to encourage and assist children, especially those from communities of poverty, to enter high school and, later on, college, with excellent academic credentials. Young Scientists involves the students, their teachers, principals, and parents, and personnel from the University of Texas in a sustainable program focused, where it must be, on the students.

Related to this, I have just completed lecturing to two huge sections—roughly 450 students in each lecture—of general chemistry for science and engineering students. Not surprisingly, I am both encouraged and discouraged. All of these students are quite familiar with the huge libraries of information at their fingertips, or should I say their computer screens, but I am constantly appalled by their generally horrible experience with simple mathematics. Here is an example: “If Ka = 10–6, what is pKa?” It turns out that doing this on one of the more popular calculators, in what appears to be an appropriate entry method, yields “5” for the answer. You do not want to know how many second-semester chemistry students answered “5” and quarreled with me “because this answer came out of this machine.” This issue makes me keenly aware of ground often lost between sixth grade and the end of high school—ground that is difficult, I might say nearly impossible, to recover upon entering college. My conclusion is that high-quality education must be, by and large, a linked seamless process, and weak links anywhere in the chain are disastrous.

I am of the opinion that investments at the sixth grade and forward through high school are critical to the future of graduate education in chemistry. We do not need novel solutions. We need to follow the well-worn advertising line, “Just do it.” We need to do what we know works—and what works is individual, personal investment of our time and, yes, our personal money, over a decade to influence a few students and see them successfully through. The rewards will be magnificent even as we adapt to the failures, resistances, and rejections that inevitably come. I think we know what has worked and what will work. The question really is, What are we willing to invest of our individual resources?

To close, let me just observe how center-based graduate education in the STC framework has influenced my own work. More than 10 years ago, I became interested in chemical vapor deposition and thin film growth from molecular precursors but realized that the benefits would be enhanced were I to learn the electrical engineering that enters into device considerations. That has been realized through long-term, center-based collaborations with two colleagues, one in chemical engineering, the other in electrical engineering. We have made excellent use of central facilities made possible by the focused long-term funding undergirding our STC. We have jointly supervised a number of graduate students and, along the way, I have learned the electrical engineering concepts and benefited enormously from the intellectual stimulation. And I have the clear sense that students doing research in such a day-in, day-out environment graduate looking forward to tackling complex problems and reinventing themselves every 5 to 10 years. Our country needs them and more of them.


Jeanne Pemberton, University of Arizona: I would like to address one aspect of the graduate experience that you commented on, and that is the use of formal course work. You said that you couldn't really teach graduate students what they need to know in courses. I would like to take exception to that. Perhaps by teaching them in the traditional sense, the so-called telling mode as Angie Stacy called it yesterday, we are not doing our students a great deal of service. Perhaps we could be more creative in the kinds of things that we do in our courses to educate our students broadly. I am referring to things that are more experiential than lecture based. Could you comment on activities that you perhaps use in your center that are experiential and give students a broader range of skills?

J. Michael White: We have twice annually what I will call a miniature scientific meeting. That is one thing. Second, I really don't want to get too extreme about the use of course work. We have a team-taught interdisciplinary course available not only to the science and technology center student, but to all students who deal with the subject matters that are the focus of the center. There are also many one- or two-day tutorials on various aspects of instrumentation. These are activities that the science and technology center does three or four times a year. I don't have the numbers in front of me.

Jeanne Pemberton: Do you do anything that is laboratory based for graduate students? I know that is heresy to suggest, but I think that there are ways we can broaden the skill set of graduate students by implementing laboratory-based kinds of activities that are short term but not actually research.

J. Michael White: There are two cases that I can think of. There is a short course on surface analysis and a short course on electron microscopy that is a component of our center's activity. Those are given once a year.

John Schwab, National Institute of General Medical Sciences: My grant portfolio includes organic synthesis, medicinal chemistry, bioorganic chemistry, and natural products chemistry. My question might be more appropriate for Ron Borchardt, but I would like both of you to address it in turn. I find the science and technology centers to be very exciting, because of the potential for conducting highly integrated, interdisciplinary scientific research. However, I am concerned about the job prospects of students who are trained in such an environment. With few exceptions, when hiring medical chemists, the pharmaceutical industry focuses its recruiting efforts solely on students who have a great deal of depth in organic synthesis but not much scientific breadth. Particularly in the context of organic synthesis, it is perceived that breadth of knowledge comes only at the expense of depth of knowledge. I wonder if you have concerns about the marketability of the students who are trained in highly integrated, multidisciplinary science?

J. Michael White: I would go back to what I intended to say, and that is that I don't think we have compromised the depth at all. We have moved the drilling bit over onto the interface between what has traditionally been called chemistry and what has traditionally been called electrical engineering. I had a call a week ago from a staff member of a major semiconductor company. He said, “I have never seen a student like Allen Mao. He can talk the language of molecular chemistry, and he can also talk the language of device engineering.” Allen is an electrical engineer. He has a Ph.D. This is anecdotal because we don't have huge numbers. I can give you the numbers, but they won't mean much to you. There is no doubt that you can educate too broadly. That is not my goal. My goal is to move the drilling bit over and to get a look at both sides in a different kind of way if you want to establish a new kind of discipline.

John Schwab: Of course, when you move the drilling bit over, the product that you are getting out is somewhat different. Then again, assuming the product is deeply trained, it is a question of whether or not the product is still going to be marketable. Perhaps this is a difference between surface chemistry and electronics, for instance, and pharmaceuticals.

Ronald T. Borchardt, University of Kansas: I am going to address part of this in my talk, but let me add one thought. One of the difficulties in giving students more breadth in their educational experience is the reluctance of the faculty to look critically at the courses that they are teaching and objectively say that in order to add to this list of offered courses we have to delete something. Faculty tend to be hung up on teaching a certain course their entire career, and they are very reluctant to release that course. You have to think about what is in the best interest of the students and their careers. You can have depth in the program and breadth also. But it requires serious discussions and compromise on the part of faculty in departments and in interdisciplinary programs.

C. Dale Poulter, University of Utah: John and others brought up issues related to the importance of attracting people into the profession from diverse backgrounds and areas of interest because of the shrinking pipeline of students. From the discussion, the participants in this workshop recognize this problem. I think there is another aspect related to diversity that is more subtle but also very important to the profession. The selection of specific research problems can often, I think, be influenced by one's background. An example that I would cite is the field of ethnobotany, where one uses insights obtained from folk medicine to search for new pharmaceutical agents, typically from native plants. An Hispanic-American colleague of mine became interested in the Aztec language and from that interest had occasion to view remnants of Aztec writing related to the sophisticated folk medicine that they had developed before the Spanish conquest. His interest in Aztec history provided him with the background to identify specific plants and their related medicinal use. He then continued by identifying specific chemical compounds in the plants that were responsible for the pharmacological effects. This work was initiated more than 25 years ago. It was one of the first uses of folklore to provide leads for drugs and just one example about how one's culture and background can influence the direction of research. I think it is something we don't consider.

R. Stephen Berry, University of Chicago: We know, of course, that there is a wide range of styles from one university to another. I am curious about how much you think you could have accomplished in this integration of electrical engineering and surface science in the absence of a formal structure. If you had gone informally to people in electrical engineering and said, “let's try to do this together,” how far do you think you could have gone?

J. Michael White: I have thought about that question quite a bit, and I think we could have made some progress. The issue is getting sufficient resources in the same time frame. There are also infrastructure issues. We have central facilities that we have built up and maintained that provide a lot of the longer-term glue that establishes a tradition, if I can put it that way, of continuing our collaborations from one problem to another. The reason I am saying we could have gotten part of the way is that I see my colleagues putting together programs based on one graduate student at a time. But, if properly managed, a kind of coherence arises out of building on a large, more focused base.

R. Stephen Berry: Let me ask about the other side, using examples from my own institution of the Enrico Fermi Institute and the James Franck Institute as models. The institutes were not really set up to address anything as specific as your STC, but have essentially for 50 years been like centers in that they have brought together people from different fields with the problems that they were evolving through that entire period. I think it would be very difficult, or at least unconventional, to try to set up something like that today in contrast to 1946. Would you say anything about how that kind of a structure seems to you, especially since you are coming to the end of your 11 years.

J. Michael White: I would hope that the Texas Materials Institute in 50 years will have done exactly what you are talking about, that it will provide a longer-range, broader vehicle, depending on how it is operated, and managed, for people going in and out of it on roughly the timescale of a graduate student's career and solving and making progress on certain specific problems in that time frame. I hope that happens, and I think we have that infrastructure within the University of Texas at Austin now to realize that goal.

Iwao Ojima, State University of New York at Stony Brook: I came here to listen to all the educational ideas, but I am also very interested in how chemistry goes into the 21st century, as that is the title of this workshop. I firmly believe that interdisciplinarity is a very big key for success, and then maybe chemistry will go into materials science and the rest of science. Then for the materials science side, you will have quite a success with operating your center.

At Stony Brook we have many different incentives. We have two state-operated centers for advanced technologies: one is the Center for Biotechnology, and the other deals with sensors. The centers have been quite successful. We have also started centers for molecular medicine, which includes immunology, genetics, and structural biology. In all of these centers, chemistry is involved. I am very curious about your science and technology center. Is your operation a facility that is shared, or do you appoint faculty members to the center?

J. Michael White: We have 12 faculty members, whose composition has changed slowly over the 10 years of the program. They are not appointed in terms of faculty appointments. They belong to specific departments and rise or fall on the basis of what they do in those departments, a piece of which I suppose is what they do in our center.

Iwao Ojima: So, the faculty and the departments have a share of the instrumentation, but there are no faculty members “living” in the central facilities.

J. Michael White: I would never put a faculty member in that position if I could help it.

Iwao Ojima: We have experimented with one type of arrangement in our structural biology center. Although we do not have core members, a certain number of faculty members have to reside in that center. In addition, other members may be associated. In each case, the faculty member has his or her own home department. This setup is difficult for the junior appointment.

J. Michael White: I can guarantee you that you will have some difficulties in operating it.

Iwao Ojima: Yes. Junior faculty gain by interacting with other faculty members from different departments at the center. Unfortunately, they may lose some contact with their home department. Then, when the time comes for a tenure decision, they suffer from not having spent enough time establishing relationships within the department. Does your system work in a similar style?

J. Michael White: Absolutely not.

Iwao Ojima: Then there is some faculty difference between the traditional chemistry department and biology. Graduate students are recruited into this program but still have a home department. This is sometimes very beneficial, for example, as a training ground for the chemistry/biology areas. Do you think that this type of setup would be effective for chemistry students in the materials science area? Also, the biology-related program has rotations. Do you think rotations would work in this area?

J. Michael White: It is possible. I think it would be administratively frustrating.

Iwao Ojima: I agree, but for students it is quite an experience.

J. Michael White: Yes, it is quite an experience, but I would be careful with respect to what the impact is on their future. Those students in the end need to have a real home.

Participant: I would like Mike to be more specific about the frustrations and about what he thinks about these rotations through departments.

J. Michael White: The students initially apply to a specific department. They have allegiances, and stipends come from specific departments. A certain amount of rotation occurs in terms of faculty presentations, but they don't move from one discipline to another. I accept people who are entering graduate school in chemical engineering, but they would not come into my group on the basis of the formal aspects of the science and technology center. It would be on the basis of a presentation that I would make to the graduate students who were coming into chemical engineering; similarly, in materials science.

We have a materials science and engineering program as an umbrella organization. That is a part of the Texas Materials Institute. It will involve for some people a rotation. It won't be particularly enforced. The students will be asked what areas within materials science they are really interested in and, on a case-by-case basis, they would be rotated, to use that term. So, I don't in principle object to that; you just have to see to it that it gets done and done well. Otherwise, it doesn't add anything that I can see to the future of a graduate student's career.

Robert Lockhead, University of Southern Mississippi: I don't know if you are the best person to answer this, or if Marye Anne Fox or Janet Osteryoung would be better, but it deals with the STC centers, the largest NSF centers, where the focus is usually 12 multidisciplinary faculty members. In Europe, what they have created are megacenters. The megacenters consist of many universities spread across Europe. For example, in water-soluble polymers, they have 11 universities, called Team Luns, Team Bristol, and so on, with each university focused on a single area. By interacting with a center, the students are automatically exposed to many disciplines. The students also rotate through several of the universities on their way to a Ph.D. So, they are exposed to different cultures and to a much better instrumentation base than any one university could afford. Can you comment on the advantage of STC compared to megacenters, or otherwise someone from the NSF if anyone can comment? Is there any move toward megacenters in this country?

J. Michael White: No comment. Janet, did you want to comment?

Janet Osteryoung, National Science Foundation: Yes. The STCs are the program at NSF that is perhaps the most visible, but, of course, there are such things as the Antarctic Research Center and other activities supported by NSF, which are much more costly and involve many more people. It sounds as if the COST program2 of the European Community is what has just been described. The COST program has as its entire purpose the communication and integration aspects, and the funds go only for that. It is assumed that all of the research involved in these programs is paid for from other sources. So, the concept is quite a bit different from the STCs.



Information on the Science and Technology Centers program, other interdisciplinary programs at NSF, and links to other interdisciplinary funding sources can be found on the World Wide Web at <www​> under, among others, “Crosscutting Programs” and “Office of Integrative Activities.”


COST is European Cooperation in the field of Scientific and Technical Research: Technical Committee for Chemistry.

Copyright © 2000, National Academy of Sciences.
Bookshelf ID: NBK44889


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