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January 3, 2018

Perspective: Let’s Put the ‘Ph’ Back in Science PhD Programs

Pilot PhD track at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aims to close gaps in graduate science education

Today’s graduate biomedical science education system is in need of comprehensive reform, two researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health argue in a new paper. Current programs, they write, are successful at teaching students how to conduct deep research. However, graduates can be too specialized and ill-prepared for a diverse job market. In addition, they are not trained in critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

Instead, science PhD programs create graduates who are specifically suited for postdoctoral training but not necessarily for positions in other fields, including other areas of science or those that involve advocacy and policymaking. Moreover, many science graduates are not adequately trained in how to communicate their research effectively to wider audiences and the public, which shortchanges both students and society, the authors argue in a paper that appears in mBio, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.
These shortcomings, they say, may also contribute to some of the prominent problems in the biomedical sciences, including poor reproducibility and a rise in retractions.

To address these issues, the researchers encourage science graduate programs to adopt interdisciplinary curricula that include philosophy and history. The article also describes a pilot program launched last year at the Bloomberg School, the R3 Graduate Science Initiative – ‘R3’ stands for scientific rigor, reproducibility and responsibility. The program aims to serve as a model for this new approach to graduate science education, with training in epistemology, logic, ethics, statistics, communication and leadership.

“Today’s programs, with their densely packed curricula and high test frequency, leave little room for creative problem-solving and, just as importantly, putting what is learned into a larger context that creates meaning,” says Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and chair of the Molecular Microbiology & Immunology Department at the Bloomberg School and one of the paper’s authors. Casadevall is also the founder of the Bloomberg School’s R3 Initiative. “Our mission is to enable young practitioners to do good science and view their work through the lens of social responsibility.”

The paper was co-written by Gundula Bosch, PhD, MEd, program director of the R3 Initiative, and an assistant scientist in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology. Bosch has a joint appointment with the Johns Hopkins School of Education.

The researchers note that there have been previous calls to reform biomedical science education along these lines, particularly at the graduate level. Recently, several institutions, including the American Academy of Microbiology and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued recommendations on how to better prepare graduate science students.

For their part, Casadevall and Bosch write that science education reform should result in scientists who are:

In their paper, the authors propose pedagogical frameworks that have been previously adopted in non-science disciplines, but have not been widely applied to graduate biomedical science training thus far. One recommendation under the heading “facilitate cognitive connection,” calls for supplementing science textbooks with broader writings, including general science journalism, podcasts, TED Talks and op-eds and to use role-modeling and storytelling. Another suggestion is to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue through group discussions about controversial issues in science, so that students can think more broadly about societal consequences of research actions and the bigger-picture problems of the scientific enterprise.

In 2017, the Bloomberg School’s R3 track piloted four courses that were offered through the School’s Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology, including an introduction to critical thinking in science, and anatomy of scientific error. Students were asked to analyze the assumptions behind a New York Times op-ed about Big Sugar’s “secret allies.” In another assignment, students read Atul Gawande’s piece in The New Yorker, “The Mistrust of Science.” Bosch found that “these readings motivate students to challenge common assumptions and evaluate the reasoning used in the writing [about science].” 

The program at the Bloomberg School is expanding this year, with new courses in communication training, research design, scientific reasoning and critical analysis of scientific literature. In addition, students can take courses offered in collaboration with other departments, including storytelling in science and public health and persuasive speaking and writing. Next year, more courses will be added, and the program expects to complete its accreditation process.

“This curriculum is designed to give students the ‘think-outside-the-box’ skills to build bridges among the science disciplines and between science and philosophy,” says Bosch. “We expect our graduates to become passionate change agents who make a positive impact on the scientific enterprise and society as a whole. Scientists with a breadth of skills are needed in many areas. It is reasonable to assume that better educated scientists will do better science and share scientific insights more effectively with not only their peers but also with the public at large.”

 “Graduate Biomedical Science Education Needs a New Philosophy” was written by Gundula Bosch and Arturo Casadevall.

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Media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Barbara Benham at 410-614-6029 or and Robin Scullin at 410-955-7619 or