PSU welcomes sustainability Ph.D. students from across the nation

“What you’re getting is very rare, and all of you are very lucky.” 

Richard Boone, a program director for the National Science Foundation, said these words to a group of Ph.D. students from universities across the country. The 33 students, all recipients of prestigious IGERT awards from the National Science Foundation, gathered at Portland State University to exchange ideas and collaborate on sustainability research during a four-day conference from September 26-29.  

IGERT stands for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, a highly competitive NSF program that funds interdisciplinary graduate-level education—interdisciplinary being the “rare” aspect of the program to which Boone was referring. 

The program brings together engineers, natural scientists, and social scientists to learn and work collaboratively on a common theme. More than 100 universities around the country have hosted IGERT programs, each focused on a different theme. At PSU, students work on issues related to natural systems and urbanizing areas. At Cornell, the focus is on food systems and poverty reduction, and at Dartmouth, the topic is polar environmental change.

The IGERT program is 15 years old, which Boone says is pretty ancient in NSF program terms. As such, NSF has decided it’s time for the program to evolve. The new iteration of the program will be called the NSF Research Traineeship. Boone and others on his team have been working to develop the new program, soliciting feedback from IGERT students like the ones at the conference.

As the program team is finding out, Ph.D. students in the STEM fields want more professional development training—skills that help them navigate and succeed in the non-academic world, since these days the majority of jobs available to Ph.D. holders are outside the ivory tower. 

Boone says that the IGERT model, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration, better prepares students for non-academic careers than traditional discipline-focused education, as it more closely resembles the diverse “real-world” workplace. But there is even more work to be done to create more broader impact, and NSF has decided now is the time to start on that work.

“One of the purposes of IGERT was to instigate institutional change, to break down barriers between departments and disciplines,” said Boone. “In some cases that’s happened, and in some cases is hasn’t.”

PSU’s IGERT program welcomed its third cohort of students this fall. The focus on ecosystem services for urbanizing regions has led to research on the trade-offs of the proposed West Hayden Island port development project, and on flood prevention in urban river deltas around the world, from the Netherlands to New Orleans.

Learn more about PSU's Ecosystem Services for Urbanizing Regions program here: