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AN INTEGRATIVE TRAINING PROGRAM FOR VERSATILE STEM PROFESSIONALS TO SOLVE ENVIRONMENTAL AND GLOBAL HEALTH PROBLEMS

Abstract

Major environmental and global health problems, such as emerging infectious diseases, antibiotic and pesticide resistance, reduced crop yields, and the loss of biodiversity, can be addressed through the integration of evolutionary principles with the massive amounts of available climate, genomic, and public health data. For example, pathogens, pests, and invasive species often quickly evolve resistance to control measures, while important crops and wild populations have limited or variable capacity to adapt to rapidly changing global conditions. Important insights into the mechanisms of pathogen/pest resistance and resilience will require collaborative efforts that apply evolutionary principles to big data analyses and visualization. However, few opportunities exist for trainees to develop the unique combination of relevant evolutionary, quantitative, and teamwork skills. This National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) award to the University of Vermont will meet this demand with an interdisciplinary PhD training program called QUantitative & Evolutionary STEM Training (QUEST). The project anticipates training 36 PhD students as core trainees, 18 of whom will receive NRT-funded stipends, from a range of disciplines including biology, mathematics and statistics, engineering, agricultural sciences, environmental studies, and health sciences. The QUEST program is unique in its emphasis on evolutionary training, modeling for prediction, and culturally sensitive teamwork. Major research efforts will focus on three areas: (i) emerging infectious diseases and modeling for prediction, (ii) rapid evolution in response to antibiotics, pesticides, and global change conditions, and (iii) pathogen interactions that affect food security and ecosystem health. A supportive and collaborative training environment will be cultivated by cohort building via a shared, physical space, a set of core courses in which trainees work in teams to solve real-world problems, and a seminar that includes invited speakers and professional development activities. In addition, QUEST trainees will complete an applied internship, selected from government, non-profit, industry, and international partners. Through cultural sensitivity and inclusion training for faculty, staff and trainees, and innovative recruitment efforts, the traineeship aims to increase underrepresented groups in STEM. Project outcomes will be (1) trainees that are experts in the application of deep evolutionary and quantitative knowledge to develop solutions for resilience in environmental and global health systems, (2) trainees that can work creatively and collaboratively to translate their skills to practical solutions in non-academic sectors, and (3) a scalable, transferable graduate training program that increases diversity in STEM fields. The NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program is designed to encourage the development and implementation of bold, new potentially transformative models for STEM graduate education training. The Traineeship Track is dedicated to effective training of STEM graduate students in high priority interdisciplinary research areas, through comprehensive traineeship models that are innovative, evidence-based, and aligned with changing workforce and research needs.

People

Funding

2017-2022