As an undergraduate engineering student at the University of Connecticut, Sheldon Bish participated in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates at The University of Texas at Austin. So when it came time to make the decision about where to attend graduate school, Bish was confident with his choice.
“I chose UT because they had an up-and-coming biomedical engineering program. They had some of the focuses that I was interested in, primarily optics.”
Bish is one of more than 11,500 graduate students enrolled at The University of Texas at Austin. The Graduate School was established in 1910 and is celebrating its 100th anniversary this week. One of the key tenets of graduate education is the discovery of new knowledge and the contribution of original research.
Along with faculty adviser James Tunnell, Bish is doing just that as they develop innovative ways to detect and treat skin cancer using biomedical optics.
“It is widely believed that the greatest achievement in cancer management is the early detection and treatment of the disease,” says Tunnell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering. “The next generation cancer management strategies require technologies that combine sensing, targeting and treating of the earliest stage disease.”
Tunnel’s initial technology, a pen-sized, light-based device, was licensed through the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization to a start-up company.
The device sends weak pulses of light from the tip onto the skin or tissue and then back through the probe to a computer system for analysis. The light measures the cellular and molecular signatures of skin cancer without the need for a biopsy or the excision of a tissue sample.
In an optical lab in the new Biomedical Engineering Building, Bish is researching and testing the next generation of the probe, hoping to improve its performance and provide broader imaging of the suspect area.
“My role,” he says, “is to take out the adverse effects that come with the original probe, including pressure when you apply the probe to the skin. By using lenses to capture the optical signature, we can remove the probe from the skin and capture a more accurate picture.
“We’re not only going to sample one single point on the skin. We’re actually going to make an imaging probe that can scan a relatively large area, creating a map of spectral signatures across a wide area of skin. Different light signatures are known to correlate with the presence and type of skin cancer.”
Tunnell says it would be impossible to execute this level of research without the help of his graduate students. Their commitment of time and energy is coupled with new approaches and fresh perspectives.
“From a practical sense,” he says, “they do all the work in the lab. The good thing on a more philosophical side is that they are fresh and new and eager so they have a lot of motivation.
“And, they are excited about what they are doing, so they are willing to spend lots of hours. They ask a lot of questions and end up finding their own ways and new ways of doing things. When we go out to a new area, hopefully I learn as much from them as they learn from me. When we go down a new path, they have to research it so they can teach me and the other students in the lab.”
Driving the Research Engine
Bish is an example of the thousands of graduate students at The University of Texas at Austin driving its vast research engine and training to be the innovators of tomorrow. Graduate researchers extend and complement the work of their faculty advisers, develop new ideas of their own and learn to mentor undergraduate students.
“Basically, when they come here, it’s to get them to think critically, to learn the subtleties of research and also to do their own mini-lab,” says James Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Foundation Centennial Professor and Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology. “For instance, I view my lab as a small corporation in that at any time I have between five and 10 graduate students. Each of those graduate students will be doing their own research. That research will be in partnership with me, but they have a lot of autonomy. Most of these students will have undergraduate students working with them.”
The University of Texas at Austin received $642 million in federal research funding last year. There are more than 3,500 research projects and more than 150 organized research units and graduate students are associated with nearly all of them.
Emily Grubert is pursuing her second master’s degree at the university. After developing a passion for energy as an undergraduate at Stanford University, Grubert was awarded a prestigious Harrington Fellowship by the Graduate School for a master’s degree in energy and Earth resources in the Jackson School of Geosciences.
But it wasn’t only the financial support that persuaded Grubert to attend the university. As is the case for many prospective graduate students, it was the opportunity to work with a particular member of the faculty that clinched her decision.
During her undergraduate research, Grubert repeatedly encountered the work of Michael Webber, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and fellow in the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. Webber’s research and expertise in policy issues relevant to energy and innovation aligned with the type of work Grubert hoped to do as a graduate student.
Grubert says now more than ever there is an opportunity to look at environmental issues as interconnected systems.
“I am motivated by climate change,” she says, “interested in energy and worried about water resources. Before we make billion-dollar global investments, we should think about the secondary effects of that decision first. We have the capacity to do that now.”
She is researching the effects of various land use options on the island of Maui and their effect on water. She plans to continue her research while pursuing a Ph.D., with the ultimate goal of attaining an academic position at a top research university.
The Faculty of Tomorrow
With more than one million semester credit hours taught each year to the more than 38,000 undergraduate students on campus, it is impossible for faculty to teach every undergraduate course, conduct research and complete the associated administrative tasks. In fall 2010, 2,666 graduate research assistants, 2,515 teaching assistants and 592 assistant instructors helped support university faculty in these areas.
Graduate student instructors play an important role in teaching and mentoring undergraduate students. Many graduate students will become the faculty of tomorrow, teaching the next generation.
Kevin Bourque, winner of the 2010 Outstanding Assistant Instructor Award from the Graduate School, started as a teaching assistant and became an assistant instructor in the Department of English in 2009. With a career goal of teaching English at a top research university, Bourque made the most of his opportunities at the university to gain valuable teaching experience. He was mentored as an assistant instructor by Lisa Moore, associate professor of English and women’s and gender studies.
“Graduate students in English are really fortunate to be nurtured through the entire process of teaching, one step at a time,” says Bourque. “We start at T.A.s, which is very much supervised, in that you’re teaching someone else’s syllabus and materials; you then step into Rhetoric and Writing, so you are focusing more on composition, on guiding your students to become solid writers. And finally, you develop your own curriculum, your own vision of a class.”
Moore agrees that the structured mentoring process adopted by the Department of English is critical to the teaching success of graduate students. The department is responsible for teaching important core classes that are degree requirements for undergraduates. This increases the pressure to ensure the highest quality of teaching.
“We feel that we need to put our best faculty teachers in those (mentoring) positions and also make sure that the quality of the graduate student teaching is consistent with the best faculty teaching,” says Moore.
While graduate students benefit from the training and practice they receive as teaching assistants and assistant instructors, Moore thinks there is value for the undergraduates in the classroom as well.
“I think there are a lot of advantages to having graduate student teachers, well trained, very qualified graduate student teachers in front of the undergraduate classroom,” she says. “One is simply the new job enthusiasm. Anyone who is highly qualified, has just gotten into a prestigious program and is sort of rocketing their way through the first part of their career is going to bring that enthusiasm to the experience.
“But the second thing is that being closer to the experience of being an undergraduate definitely adds an element of relevance and an element of connection and an element of recognition to what the teacher can see, hear and understand about the experience of the students.”
Moore finds graduate students who are on the vanguard of research in their fields and who are going to be the prominent researchers of the future bring the latest approaches and discovery into the classroom.
Kyle Akerman, an undergraduate studying communication studies-human relations was a student in Bourque’s “Gay and Lesbian Literature” class in spring 2010.
Says Akerman, “It is difficult to summarize the type of teacher that Kevin is. It seems that one can only capture it in adjectives: creative, detailed, insightful, (and foremost) passionate. He has a knack for giving students more work than would generally seem possible, and making that work seem like it isn’t work at all. Kevin is the kind of teacher who can change your life if you allow him.”
Celebrating 100 Years of Graduate Education
While graduate studies have been part of the university from beginning, the Graduate Department was created by the Board of Regents in June 1910, in accordance with a plan recommended by the faculty on Nov. 2, 1909. Since that time, more than 125,000 men and women have earned master’s or doctoral degrees from The University of Texas at Austin.
In 1910, 32 graduate students were enrolled at the university and eight master’s degrees were awarded. The first doctoral degree was awarded in 1915. Today, more than 11,500 graduate students attend The University of Texas at Austin, making it one of the largest in the country. About 40 percent of the graduate population is from Texas, 30 percent from other states and 30 percent international. More than 800 doctoral and 3,000 master’s degrees are awarded annually.