One of the great educational success stories is that graduate training can teach individuals how to do deep scientific investigation. Today, such training, which dates back to the middle of the 19th century, is in desperate need of an overhaul.
The amount of scientific knowledge has exploded, giving rise to new fields in science with differing concepts, tools, and cultures. The training of new scientists has become a highly specialized endeavor that frequently emphasizes the acquisition of factual knowledge instead of skills that are essential for good scientific practice, such as critical thinking, rigorous research design, analysis, and philosophy of science. Many training programs today turn out young scientists with overly narrow interests and poor communication skills.
Previous efforts to reform graduate biomedical and health science education have generally been limited to rearranging the formal curriculum that typically precedes individual thesis research. Overwhelmed by the deluge of scientific data, and under pressure to reduce the time to degree, some program directors have devised curricula densely packed with subject matter that favored students who memorize quickly — and forget just as fast.
Some of the reticence to adopt truly revolutionary reforms stems from an antiquated viewpoint that the role of universities does not include educating students for the job market. Instead, graduate programs, particularly doctorate-level programs, have focused on producing the next generation of highly specialized postdocs instead of broadly educated, reflective individuals who can perform in a variety of spheres, such as research, business, law, and government.
Many research universities appear to have forgotten their roots in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ideas of a studium universale, in which interdisciplinary training reduced boundaries and taught scientists how to think independently, critically, and outside the box. Looking over the rim of our teacups — or Petri dishes — is a prerequisite for innovation in science and society.
Interdisciplinary practice cannot be prescribed; it must be lived. At the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, we offer the R3 Graduate Science Initiative, which we expect to become a model for the future of graduate biomedical education.
The R3 Initiative focuses on the fundamental principles that unite all scientific disciplines: rigorous research methods that insure reproducibility and awareness of the responsibility all practitioners of science should feel toward society and their discipline. While preserving the strength of traditional doctoral training — the capacity for deep investigation through laboratory-based thesis work — the R3 approach moves away from teaching mainly factual, discipline-specific knowledge to providing tools for continual learning in many spheres.
These tools include practical training in the steps of scientific inquiry, logic and reasoning, and ethics and integrity — core competencies that are essential for productivity and flexibility for every professional in the health and biomedical sciences.
R3 courses are open to graduate students from all programs and divisions at Hopkins. To promote thought exchange across boundaries, we encourage students to look through various lenses at central science concepts such as evidence, causality, redundancy, repeatability, and replicability, as well as the limits of science.
As we were planning for the R3 program, it became apparent how much biomedical education could benefit from other disciplines:
- Philosophy. The frameworks for critical thinking that are behind rigorous research methodology form the basis for our R3 approach and the underlying coursework.
- Engineering. The art and science behind sound error analysis and structured quality improvement shape the way we teach students to look critically at the scientific literature, avoid logical fallacies, and devise recommendations for improvement.
- Applied mathematics and statistics. Longitudinal and practice-oriented training in probability and statistics helps students tackle data analysis problems and avoid common misconceptions in standard applications, such as p-values in hypothesis testing.
- History. Learning about the developments and circumstances that enabled historic discoveries can inform today’s research approaches and help students view their work in a broader, more meaningful context.
- Nursing and medicine. Professionalism in modern biomedical science requires the kind of teamwork seen in nursing and medicine applied across the disciplines. Mentored and evaluated by preceptors, our students practice those performance-based skills through interdisciplinary project work.
- Business. Experiences to gain leadership competencies, such as communication, strategic planning, and economics, provide R3 students with opportunities to present the gist of their work at public events or to formulate business plans for spinoff projects from their thesis work.
- Sports. Like a muscle, essential scientific skills such as critical thinking need to be continuously exercised. In addition to regular coursework, the R3 program offers longitudinal training in oral and written communication, mathematical problem solving, and literature discussion.
- Education and psychology. Established instructional theories and methods form the groundwork for the program’s pedagogical concept to enhance student learning, mentor training, and faculty development.
Developing a revolutionary graduate science curriculum would not have been possible without institutional support. We benefited from the intellectual milieu of working in a school of public health, which inherently accepts the interdisciplinary nature of threats to health and thus provided fertile ground for trying these ideas.
Implementing the competency-focused R3 approach to graduate biomedical science education certainly posed some challenges. One of these was faculty concerns regarding the omission of traditionally taught subject matter materials, which led to large-scale adjustments in the existing curriculum. The ideas inherent in the R3 curricula also posed challenges to many scientists trained and invested in conventional doctoral programs. Listening and compassion were keys to acknowledging and understanding faculty concerns that helped us overcome initial hurdles.
We have been gratified by our students’ excitement about embarking on an exploratory journey that provides opportunities to learn about science from perspectives other than their own. It helped us realize that curiosity and the desire for interdisciplinary education is natural in young learners. We just need to provide room for it.
Humanity faces formidable challenges in the years ahead: climate change, environmental degradation, the constant threat of new pandemics, and more. In this rapidly changing world, advances in science and technology are essential for our advancement and survival. And they depend on educational institutions providing a steady supply of creative, dedicated young scientists.
As Richard Feynman once said, “If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this universe into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it!”
Gundula Bosch, Ph.D., is the program director for the R3 Graduate Science Initiative and assistant scientist in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Arturo Casadevall, M.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School and editor-in-chief of the journal mBio.