New grad school curriculum moves students into research sooner

By Lin Lofley

A new curriculum for incoming students at UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences launched at the start of the academic year, a change that likely will shorten those students’ time in school and move them into research careers sooner.

“We’ve long been a leader in biomedical graduate education,” said Dr. Michael Roth, Interim Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Biochemistry. “Curriculum changes that we made in the 1990s were widely copied, and we believe these innovations will become widely accepted as well.”

In essence, new graduate students can complete almost all their class work in the first year of school, then move into research their second year. The new regimen – a change in scheduling but not course content – grew out of a decision last year to shift students into research sooner, Dr. Roth said.

That’s partly because state funding comes to each institution based on the number of students enrolled. In the graduate schools, this funding supports students only during the first year. Thereafter, the students are engaged in projects that are typically supported by training grants and research funding.

“Our curriculum is not aimed at transferring fact and content to the student,” Dr. Roth said. “We want students to learn how to efficiently teach themselves what they need to know for their research.”

While the curriculum is changing to meet changing times, each revision is carefully thought out. The ascendancy of the Internet also played a role in the decision.

“I’d say that we’re pretty conservative when it comes to these things,” Dr. Roth said. “But we’re undergoing a revolution in curriculum, in part because of the Internet. I believe that the future of graduate education will lie in part in what we can put up on the Web.

“We’ll still have as many faculty members, but we’ll have fewer in the classroom lecture setting. Where faculty members interact with students, it will be in small groups.”

Leilani Marty Santos, a fourth-year graduate student, has seen the curriculum evolve. She began as a student in the previous curriculum and now tutors students under the new regimen.

“This is really different than the way previously we did it,” said Ms. Marty Santos, who graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with degrees in biology and chemistry and is now in the laboratory of Dr. Ondine Cleaver, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology. “Then, you had two full years of class work; now, you’re done in a year. There’s some pressure attendant in that, but you actually have more time to learn in your specific field.”

Ms. Marty Santos began tutoring fellow students in her first year of grad school and continued after completing her core courses. 

 “What happens a lot is that students have a gap in their knowledge when they come to grad school here,” she said. “We tutors try to fill those gaps, and it’s fun when you see the light come on, and suddenly they know how to talk about a concept or technique that was previously unclear to them.”

 Valerie Granados, a first-year student who graduated from UT El Paso with a degree in biology, said: “Leilani helped me with key concepts in areas where I needed help. When I got here, it quickly became clear that I wasn’t strong on proteins. She gave me a boost that kept me from really lagging behind.

“Graduate school is pretty heavy-duty, and the time commitment is huge. It’s graduate school, so it’s not supposed to be easy, but when you need help, it’s good to know that it’s there.”

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Dr. Roth holds the Diane and Hal Brierley Distinguished Chair in Biomedical Research.

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