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Traineeship program aims to engage students in global research

Different regions of the world offer different solutions to a shared problem. Few programs take advantage of this phenomenon, but Rutgers strives to live up to its motto by involving their graduate students in global interdisciplinary research.

The Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program, founded in 1998, is a national, interdisciplinary graduate program funded by the National Science Foundation for different 5-year research project concentrations on relevant issues in society.

Linda Anthony, program coordinator of the Renewable and Sustainable Fuels project, said the layout of IGERT can be thought of as one of learning by immersion and gaining by explaining.

Rutgers was awarded over $6.4 million and two grants in 2009 by the NSF to fund graduate research in clean and sustainable energy resources using biotechnology and nanotechnology, as the first IGERT division to have done so, she said.

She said the energy team consists of two projects: the Renewable and Sustainable Fuel Solutions for the 21st Century Project on Cook campus and the Nanotechnology for Clean Energy Project on Busch campus.

The two have since coalesced into one research movement on both the solid-state and chemical fuel aspects of renewable energy, she said.

The Renewable and Sustainable Fuel Solutions project, which is nearing the end of its five years, has research thrusts in biofuels, catalysts/engineering systems, sustainability and fuel deployment logistics, according to the IGERT fuels page.

Graeme Gardner, an IGERT trainee, thinks what sets IGERT apart from other programs is its interdisciplinary nature.

“The IGERT program … wants you to be a bit more receptive. [They] don’t want students who are very smart but only work huddled on their own project,” said Gardner, also a graduate student.

Trainees are required to finish thesis modules, attend symposiums, work on energy team projects and attend two interdisciplinary seminar classes year-round while pursuing a doctoral degree, according to the IGERT fuel website.

Some also go on international research projects to places such as Denmark, South Africa and Brazil for “mobile classrooms” via tours, field research and lab work, Anthony said.

Journal club meetings and energy team projects prompt trainees to teach essentials of their field on a level understandable to non-experts and the graduate students from other disciplines, she said.

These are meant to nurture fluency in each other’s methodologies and to make them consider questions about their fields in ways not thought of prior, she said.

Chemistry students learn about the agriculture of biofuels and public policy students learn about the allotropes involved in synthetic fuel without defocusing themselves from their own expertise, she said.

“Whereas other programs are self-voluntary, ingrained into this program is … outreach,” she said. “It gives taxpayers and policymakers a better appreciation for good things being done.”

Eric Lam, project director for IGERT, views outreach as crucial for the students to cultivate leadership skills.

He said IGERT brings together graduate student trainees, Ph.D. students, professors and occasional Aresty Research Center students from each one of Rutgers’ different schools and even from other countries.

“As leaders, they won’t get anywhere without openness and communication,” he said.

IGERT trainees engage in public dialogue by presenting at international symposiums, hosting energy cafes and demos and visiting other schools, according to the official outreach reports for the project.

In April 2013, trainees visited the Fashion Institute of Technology to educate graduate students on green building design, according to the official outreach reports.

Students in closed labs may look at their research as the sole solution, when in reality it may be one of thousands around the world, Gardner said.

He says that IGERT fosters an appreciation for outside innovation via international trips, and by inviting key speakers from other countries to talk at symposiums about their own energy approaches.

Shannon Morath, an IGERT trainee, said her experience in Brazil showed her how involved the process of fermentation was, which led to her research on yeast.

NSF will continue to fund the program for one more semester, and Rutgers will continue to fund for another year, giving the project another two and a half years of activity, said Lam.

Anthony cites programs like IGERT as a valuable way that graduate students can get funding for continuing research in a dwindling economy.

Lam said he believes that the University’s supportive faculty is what helped it receive its two grants.

Rutgers stays among the top IGERT programs, Anthony said. It has held several projects in other fields in the past, such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, cognitive science and neuroscience.

Anthony likens the success of the program at Rutgers to the college bus system.

“It’s a little bit like the Rutgers bus system that connects all the campuses,” she said. “There are many venues of excellence in sustainable energy research across [the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy,] and the IGERT project helps forge connections among these for the benefit of all.”

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