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Preparing the Next Generation

Conquest - Summer 2008

By Mary Jane Schier

Recruiting and training the best graduate students to fulfill M. D. Anderson’s research mission more rapidly is a top priority for institutional leaders.

“Nothing is more important than selecting and preparing the next generation of bright young scientists who will take advantage of the exciting opportunities emerging in cancer research,” notes Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., provost and executive vice president.

Michelle Barton, Ph.D., welcomes German college students (from left) Lena Haust, Hertlein Gillian, Katharina Genreith and Maria Boehme. They spent 10 weeks learning about research in M. D. Anderson laboratories.

Soon after assuming his position in June 2007, DuBois named a nine-member Graduate Education Committee to focus on enhancing recruitment of top-tier graduate students, reviewing academic standards and increasing faculty participation in graduate mentoring activities. 

The panel has evaluated all aspects of graduate education and recommended several ways for M. D. Anderson to be even more competitive globally in recruiting and teaching students interested in biomedical science careers.

“We want to raise the bar in both the quality and scope of educational experiences for our students and our outstanding faculty. There is no greater need than having a passionate mentor or any greater reward than being one,” DuBois says.

Raising awareness of advanced degrees

As a part of The University of Texas System, M. D. Anderson has provided professional and public education programs that for many years have taught how to reduce the burden of cancer for people around the world. Its faculty and facilities have supplied substantial support to help train students at the UT Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences since the school started in 1963. 

Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D.

The state’s Education Code was changed a few years ago to allow M. D. Anderson to award both undergraduate and advanced degrees. Beginning in 2002, the institution first shared in conferring doctor of philosophy and master of science degrees to students enrolled at GSBS, which it operates jointly with the UT Health Science Center at Houston. GSBS offices, classrooms and a student computer laboratory are located in M. D. Anderson’s George and Cynthia Mitchell Basic Sciences Research Building.

“Since GSBS is a partnership between the two UT institutions, potential students may have some difficulty identifying specific research opportunities at M. D. Anderson. In fact, while we are well known as one of the top cancer centers in the world, few applicants to graduate school seem aware that we offer advanced degrees in biomedical research,” explains Gary Gallick, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Cancer Biology and chair of the Graduate Education Committee.

At its initial meeting, the committee decided that revamping the M. D. Anderson Internet site was crucial to help interested students learn about the institution and the large number of faculty conducting research.

“We worked with our Internet support group to get a graduate research banner posted on the homepage with quicker links to describe M. D. Anderson and what our teaching faculty can offer students, plus a better link to the GSBS site,” says Stephanie Watowich, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Immunology and committee vice chair.

Committee members also cited the need for sustained stipend support for graduate students, suggested numerous steps to recruit outstanding students and stressed that faculty should be recognized for their educational contributions.

GSBS Dean George Stancel, Ph.D., a member of the Graduate Education Committee, says 486 degree-seeking students were enrolled as of mid-summer and about 100 new students are expected in September. The 580 graduate school faculty include 357 M. D. Anderson faculty members.

Expanding international exchange efforts

One of the early Graduate Education Committee proposals now implemented involves a summer exchange program for promising international undergraduate students to learn about research opportunities at M. D. Anderson.

Committee member Michelle Barton, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, coordinated planning for four German students who arrived in mid-June to spend 10 weeks in laboratories where faculty are conducting research in fields they are considering. She worked with Wolfgang Hillen, Ph.D., who chairs the Department of Molecular Microbiology at the University of Erlangen-Nurenberg, to select three students from that school and another one from the University of Heidelberg.

“Many M. D. Anderson faculty have hosted students from other countries on an informal basis. I hope our efforts with these four students will lead to more dedicated exchange programs. While showing visiting students how we conduct cancer research, I know many of our graduate students would enjoy spending time in some of our international colleagues’ laboratories,” Barton says.

Barton, who joined M. D. Anderson in 2000, recalls wonderful mentors who helped chart her career and says she thrives on her own teaching activities. She also confides, “I learn new things every day from our students.” She credits John Latham, the GSBS student representative on the Graduate Education Committee, with “terrific suggestions” for communicating better with undergraduates who could be recruited.

“College students live such different lives today. John is helping us understand how to reach them through creative weblinks, chat rooms, Facebook and other methods.  We’re planning for future recruitment using these newer web-based tools,” Barton says.

As M. D. Anderson expands its network of international sister institutions, more students are expected to be interested in exchange program opportunities.

Finding sources of support

Stephanie Watowich, Ph.D., and Gary Gallick, Ph.D., review updated
Internet site information about graduate training opportunities.

One continuing problem for all teaching activities, but especially graduate training, is a shortage of sustained support for students and faculty alike.

“Graduate education represents a long-term investment. Our committee has recommended ways to assure M. D. Anderson will be more competitive in recruiting and preparing the best students,” says Watowich, who directs the Graduate Program in Immunology and serves on the GSBS Executive Committee.

As a result of the Graduate Education Committee’s analysis, institutional funds have been increased to provide graduate students with stipends for their first two years.

“Such stipends offer more security to students while they learn the ropes and decide on research to pursue. In the past, funds supported stipends for about 40 students for less than a year, after which our faculty who accept students must pay stipends from their research grants. However, with cutbacks in federal funds for many grants, we are all challenged to support our students,” Gallick says.

Additional committee recommendations that DuBois says likely will be implemented include supplemental funds for graduate program directors, special education awards, support for as many as 15 faculty who provide exemplary training, and financial incentives for faculty to participate in educational activities at all levels. 

“I am extremely pleased with how rapidly the committee has proposed workable solutions for some big dilemmas and suggested how faculty can be more involved in aggressive student recruitment. We are working on plans to promote our graduate opportunities and also planning a campaign to raise up to $25 million in donor funds that would create an endowment for graduate education activities,” DuBois says.

Other committee ideas being implemented include asking more faculty to contact their former undergraduate teachers and advisers as well as research peers at academic institutions in many countries. Several faculty leaders also have begun promoting M. D. Anderson’s graduate training through professional organizations and at conferences.

“There’s nothing like personal contact to tell what M. D. Anderson has to offer in graduate research opportunities for our future scientists,” Gallick emphasizes.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center