Research Feature: Reflections on the Earth's Subsurface Biosphere IGERT Program

In September, the Earth’s Subsurface Biosphere IGERT graduate program completed its seventh and final year.  The program was Oregon State University’s first to receive a grant from a popular National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative called Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT).  Through the grant, OSU and its partner institution, Portland State University, received $3.3 million dollars from NSF to provide graduate fellowships, offer special research opportunities, and create a strong interdisciplinary research community focused on the world of microbes that live underground in soil, groundwater and rock. 

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2006 National Evaluation Study of IGERT Programs

Journal article by the 2006-2007 ESB-IGERT group process training class: Caldwell, S.L., J.R. Laidler, E.A. Brewer, J.O. Eberly, S.C. Sandborgh, and F.S. Colwell. 2008. Anaerobic oxidation of methane: Mechanisms, bioenergetics, and the ecology of associated microorganisms. Environmental Science and Technology 42: 6791-6799.

 “When I was a graduate student in the 1970’s, I wished that there was a way to combine my major field, igneous petrology, with other fields, such as microbiology, but there wasn’t an opportunity to do that,” says Martin Fisk, now Associate Dean of the Graduate School and the initial director of ESB-IGERT. “Thirty years later, the combination of those fields has led to discoveries that were at that time unimaginable. My hope is that our students will continue to nudge the field in a positive direction, that we’ve given them skills that will help them clean groundwater, increase our understanding of genetics, and make soils more productive.”

The program provided 34 Ph.D. students with two-year fellowships, special courses, workshops and seminars.  Students chose home departments that matched their background and interests and ranged from microbiology to engineering.  They also took courses in complementary fields and completed a special subsurface biosphere integrated minor. The first cohorts of ESB-IGERT students have now completed their Ph.D.s and gone on to professional careers in academia, industry and government. They and other ESB-IGERT students have authored or co-authored about fifty research publications in journals ranging from Microbiology to Water Resources Research

Stephanie in the field.

Stephanie Boyle, a 2007 ESB-IGERT graduate, collecting soil samples as part of her dissertation.

A highlight for many students was the “Group Process Training” (GPT) – a year-long effort where second-year graduate students worked together to develop an interdisciplinary research project or paper. For example, the 2005-2006 group carried out field sampling and studied biodegradation of contaminants at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.  The 2006-2007 group wrote a review paper for a technical journal. Elizabeth Brewer, part of the 2006-2007 GPT cohort commented, “GPT gave us a chance to develop skills communicating with and working with each other and a chance to move forward with a project that was outside of our major field.” In fact, a 2006 evaluation of IGERT programs from across the country found that IGERT students were more prepared than traditional Ph.D. students to work with interdisciplinary teams and communicate with researchers outside of their field.

Rebecca Poulson (left) in Africa..

Rebecca Poulson (left), sampling a sediment core on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania as part of her ESB-IGERT studies.

Many ESB-IGERT students also took advantage of the program's support for international research experiences.  Rebecca Poulson (Oceanography Ph.D. 2008) traveled to Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania to study isotopes of the trace metal molybdenum. Many ESB-IGERT students also participated in university outreach programs, even though it wasn’t required by their degree programs. Andrew Sabalowsky (Environmental Engineering) traveled to El Salvador to work on a water project with the OSU Student Chapter of Engineers without Borders and Mark Nielsen (Oceanography) gave several public lectures on his dissertation topic, microbial fuel cells.

The program also had benefits for OSU faculty. It supported a seminar series that brought elite researchers from around the country to OSU. The faculty also came together for student retreats and summer workshops.  Dave Myrold, professor of soil science and the final director of the ESB-IGERT program, commented, “I met faculty through the program that I had not worked with in the twenty years I had been at OSU.  OSU’s Subsurface Biosphere Initiative and several other research projects came together because ESB-IGERT helped build collaborations between faculty in different colleges and departments.”

Dave Myrold also reflected that the program helped bring about some institutional changes. "I think the ESB-IGERT program helped break down administrative barriers and smooth the way for other interdisciplinary programs."

For more information about ESB-IGERT, contact Dave Myrold.