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A new model for graduate biomedical science

The proposed Center for Innovation in Graduate Biomedical Education will prepare students for a wide range of careers.

November 2012--For more than a century, Johns Hopkins has been a model of innovation in medical education. Now, professors David Nichols and Jon Lorsch are working to launch a center that would maintain Hopkins’ leadership as an innovator in graduate biomedical education.

Citing the past two decades’ explosion of information in the life sciences—genetics, molecular biology, biochemistry, cell biology, developmental biology and physiology—as well as a dramatic shift of Ph.D. students away from careers in academic research, Nichols, vice dean for education, and biophysicist Lorsch feel the time has come to radically rethink the way such subjects are viewed and taught.

They propose a Center for Innovation in Graduate Biomedical Education (CIGBE) that would serve as the incubator of new approaches to teaching and learning biomedical science. At the same time, the center would address the many challenges currently facing research and clinical practice.

Nichols, the driving force behind creation of the school of medicine’s new Genes to Society curriculum, says CIGBE could encourage adoption of interdisciplinary principles to the real-world practice of biomedical Ph.D.’s.

“Right now, both scientific discovery and clinical care are impeded because the two are not well-connected,” Nichols says. “Discoveries are occurring in silos, and they’re having a hard time making their way to the bedside to really influence care.”
Nichols and Lorsch also envision the center as preparing students for the wide range of careers that many now enter. Forty years ago, the vast majority of biomedical Ph.D.’s found work in academics. Today, fewer than a quarter of them join the ranks of academic researchers. The majority goes into industry, working for pharmaceutical companies, biotechnology companies, information technology companies, or chooses other careers, such as science writing and patent law, Nichols and Lorsch say.

One way of giving Hopkins students a leg up on the competition would be to create industry “externships” that provide soon-to-be graduates with hands-on credentials and contacts.

Nichols and Lorsch emphasize that CIGBE is not designed to create “a monolithic, new curriculum for the graduate students,” as Lorsch puts it, but rather to establish a center where faculty can test a wide variety of ideas for updating graduate biomedical education.

One possible new model favored by Lorsch and Nichols is aimed at breaking down barriers between the fields making up the life sciences. For example, instead of teaching genetics in a separate course, information about genes that applies to each biological process would be taught as students learn about that process.

In an August 2011 article for the journal Cell, Lorsch and Nichols called this prospective new approach a “Nodes and Connections” curriculum because each biological process is known as a node, and nodes communicate through the different signaling pathways that connect them.

Lorsch and Nichols emphasized that this new approach would not only broaden graduate students’ view of biomedical science, but make them more valuable—and appealing—to prospective employers, as called for in several NIH workforce reports.

“What we posited in the article is that rather than being segregated into different kinds of biologists–you know, ‘I’m a biophysicist,’ ‘I’m a geneticist,’ ‘I’m a cell biologist’—students should have a broad understanding of the tools that are available at all these different levels,” says Lorsch.

“We’re proposing that the focus in graduate curricula be on skills development—technical skills of various kinds in the lab, at all levels; analytical skills; intellectual skills; and interpersonal skills—rather than simply knowledge.”

The article in Cell drew wide praise and interest, including inquiries from Harvard, the University of Colorado, Penn State at Hershey, the University of Utah, the University of California San Francisco and Comenius University in the Slovak Republic, among others; as well as from potential corporate partners, ranging from small- and medium-sized biotechnology companies to a major pharmaceutical manufacturer and an educational services firm.

Carol Greider, Nobel Prize-winning director of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Steve Desiderio, director of the Institute for Basic Biomedical Science, and cell biologist Peter Espenshade, among others, are helping to shepherd the CIGBE proposal through various faculty committees. Internal and external advisory boards are being established. Although CIGBE is not on the school of medicine’s current budget and no timetable has been set for establishing it, Lorsch says that funding for it from external sources is currently being sought.

—Neil Grauer

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