IMSD – the first year
First year students who are part of the IMSD program enter into a highly supportive and highly structured mentoring environment so that they can successfully handle all aspects of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program (IGP) or Quantitative and Chemical Biology Program (QCB) courses and also perform well in laboratory rotations. During the first year, didactic coursework is a central focus of graduate training and the IMSD offers academic support throughout the year. This can take multiple forms from small group discussions or help sessions that occur weekly throughout the first semester to individual tutoring sessions. The small group sessions are led by a faculty member and cover the lecture material and assigned literature readings of the current week. Individual tutoring is usually provided to first year students by more senior graduate students or postdoctoral fellows. Identifying a research mentor and a laboratory to perform one’s dissertation research is a key part of the first year training experience. IGP (and QCB) students rotate through four different laboratories during their first year in order to identify a suitable home for the remainder of their research training. IMSD students receive careful advice from the IMSD program co-directors prior to finalizing their lab choice for each rotation so that the best possible match between the IMSD student, laboratory PI, and overall lab environment can be made. Additionally, students in the IMSD program can get a head start on this process by matriculating in the summer prior to the start of IGP classes during the third week of August. The IMSD program covers the cost of the student’s summer stipend, although we require that the student be able to spend 6-8 weeks in the laboratory which typically means beginning the summer research exposure by the beginning of July at the latest. Summer laboratory exposures are arranged by mutual agreement of the faculty preceptor and incoming student.
The Vanderbilt IMSD is a performance-based program. Students move into one of the ten PhD-granting departments or programs based on their performance in acquiring the skills and abilities (didactic knowledge, lab skills, oral and writing competencies) to successfully complete a PhD program. For most students attaining these competencies requires a two semester period. However, some students may benefit from additional time to develop these competencies prior to joining a department or program. The IMSD offers up to one additional year of support to enable students to develop the fundamentally strong skill set that will ensure their success in future years of graduate training, including second year coursework and the “qualifying” or admission to PhD candidacy exam. Students who chose this path typically take any or all sections of the IGP course necessary to eradicate any deficiencies in their didactic knowledge as well as at least one elective course of significance for their planned future area of research. During the second IMSD year, students can go ahead and choose their mentor/lab for their dissertation research and upon joining the lab begin devoting considerable time to a potential dissertation research project , or they have an option to continue to rotate in one or more labs if a suitable lab home has not yet been identified. Having the option to remedy any deficiencies is an important way to reduce the pressure on first year graduate students, and in fact having this “safety net” may enhance student performance (ultimately making the option unnecessary). Moreover, for students who do avail themselves of the additional year of IMSD support, because most students do identify and join their dissertation lab after the first year, the extra year of IMSD support generally does not add to the overall time to degree which is governed primarily by progress on the dissertation research project.
Peer-mentored IMSD Journal Club
In the spring of the first year all students supported by the IMSD are required to attend the IMSD journal club. The purpose of the IMSD journal club is multifold. First, students expand their knowledge in a variety of biomedical research disciplines because the chosen journal articles cover a wide range of topics from the current literature. Second, the students have an opportunity to practice and improve upon their oral presentation skills in a supportive atmosphere since the audience consists primarily of the cohort of current IMSD students and program co-directors. Perhaps most importantly, the IMSD journal cub is peer-mentored. Current IMSD students have an opportunity to closely work with and be mentored by a more senior student who has been through this program in the past. Typically the senior student, in consultation with the first year IMSD student, chooses a paper from the current literature and then mentors the IMSD student in all aspects of the presentation including providing background material, explaining methodology, adding critical analysis and suggesting future directions the research could take.
In addition to obtaining guidance, support and critical feedback on their oral presentation skills, first year IMSD students often find their peer mentor to be an invaluable source of other wisdom such as how to survive the rigors and pressure of graduate work, chose a mentor, deal with the frustration of failure in research, improve time management skills and many more issues. Furthermore, we have had tremendous positive feedback from the more senior student peer mentors. It provides them with an opportunity to practice serving as an effective mentor, a valuable skill for individuals who eventually may become leaders in biomedical research.