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PhD Students Broaden Goals Via Open Graduate Education

March 26, 2014

The third cohort of Open Graduate Education students. Not pictured: Asha Tamirisa.

“I want the freedom to pursue my own idea,” says Yun Xu, a doctoral student in Pathobiology who was named one of 11 new Open Graduate Education participants. “I want to continue to have that freedom after my graduate studies. That’s why I am also pursuing entrepreneurship studies.”

Yun, who goes by Ryan, is a first-year PhD student from Shanghai who aims to translate liver disease research into treatments or solutions. While applying for admission last year, he learned about the Open Graduate Education program, which allows select doctoral students to pursue a secondary master’s degree. After arriving on campus, he attended an information session, talked to his director of graduate study and prospective advisor, and met with the co-founder of the master’s Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship Engineering (PRIME). “They were all very supportive,” he adds. In his application, he argued that PRIME is the program that will enable him to gain the experience to turn the knowledge generated in a lab into a product or service that will benefit society.

Ryan (Yun) XuRyan (Yun) Xu“These students show great creativity and intellectual force as they embark on their expanded academic goals,” said Peter M. Weber, Dean of the Graduate School. “The drive to shape their education is supported by planning, faculty advising, and Graduate School programming that creates an intellectual community.”

Under the pilot program, doctoral students gain the flexibility and resources to pursue a master’s degree in a secondary field while they earn their doctorates at Brown University. The aim is to enhance the educational options for excellent graduate students, catalyze new interdisciplinary pursuits, and prepare students for the demands of the job market.

The third cohort includes:

  • Zachary Barnett, Philosophy, seeks a master’s in Applied Math
  • Michael Bedard, Economics, also pursues a master’s in Applied Math
  • Eboni Chambers, Pathobiology, seeks a master’s in Public Policy
  • Mark Ho, Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences, enters the Computer Science program
  • Christopher Johnson-Roberson, Ethnomusicology, also enters the Computer Science program
  • Adam Nitensen, Neuroscience, undertakes the PRIME program
  • Ayalu Reda, Sociology, enters the master’s program in Biostatistics
  • Anna Santucci, Italian Studies, explores Theater Arts and Performance Studies
  • Vikram Saraph, Computer Science, seeks a master’s in Mathematics
  • Asha Tamirisa, Computer Music, pursues a master’s in Modern Culture and Media
  • Yun Xu, Pathobiology, enters the PRIME program

Tamirisa first learned about the program while looking at graduate schools. “That something like the Open Graduate program exists certainly piqued my interest as I was learning more about Brown!” she said. “It speaks to Brown's support of interdisciplinary work, which is very important to me.”

She will engage in Modern Culture and Media studies to develop feminist posthuman perspectives on her technological and aural practice as an electronic artist. The program, says the PhD candidate in Computer Music, “is a means of cross-pollinating between two practices and bodies of knowledge to explore a relatively new and novel area of interdisciplinary work.”

Christopher Johnson-RobersonChristopher Johnson-RobersonJohnson-Roberson is “excited to have the institutional support” he needs to gain the expertise to pursue his ideas.  His dissertation, he says, involves both a physically co-present ethnography of black LGBTQ club cultures in New York City, and a study of the online mediation thereof. “I plan to leverage my computer science work in machine learning and human-computer interaction to extend my capacities as an ethnographer, creating software tools to investigate patterns in the dissemination of music and dance emerging from these scenes.”

Each year, doctoral students are invited to propose a combination of studies, explain their rationale, describe their career plans, and list the courses to be pursued for the master’s program.  Those selected in this round can begin the secondary work as early as 2014-15. Participants receive additional financial support and professional development opportunities.

A team of deans and senior University administrators selected the 11 participants from the applications received in February. They join nine participants tapped last year for the second cohort, along with the first cohort. The program typically receives 20 or fewer applications, with academic programs helping to winnow the field ahead of the deadline.

This year, the successful applicants come largely from the humanities and life sciences, with four each. Two participants come from the social sciences and one from the physical sciences.

Eight of the 11 new participants will cross into one of the other three disciplinary divisions, with three life science students entering physical science and one exploring social science; two humanities candidates going into physical science; one social science student entering physical science and one exploring life science.

Open Graduate students gather on a nearly monthly basis to talk about how they are navigating their combined studies and to learn about each other’s projects. “Presenting their work to peers from other fields is a professional development opportunity in itself,” Dean Weber says.

Overall, the pilot initiative, which is funded in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will enable doctoral students from any discipline at Brown to pursue a master’s degree in any other discipline offered by the University. Graduate students already enjoy the latitude to pursue interdisciplinary scholarship, but this program expands and formalizes the opportunity. The program also more closely aligns the Graduate School with the spirit of Brown’s open undergraduate curriculum, a cornerstone of the University’s pedagogy

“We congratulate these students for creating ways to broaden their knowledge and differentiate their credentials,” says Dean Weber. “And we look forward to their contribution to intellectual discourse at the University.”

~By Beverly Larson