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11 PhD Students Embark on ‘Open Graduate’ Journeys

March 16, 2015

The fourth cohort of Open Graduate Education students. Not pictured: Bryan Markovitz, Prannath Moolchand and Mohak Patel.

For Mohak Patel, interest in the Graduate School’s Open Graduate Education program came quickly, amid his first year of studying Mechanics of Solids and Structures at Brown University. He opted to settle in and consider the opportunity – and the effort – entailed in pursuing a secondary Master’s degree through the distinctive program. “I had two questions to answer,” he says. “Am I willing to spend the extra time? And does this make sense for my research?”

Now one of 11 members of the fourth cohort of the Open Graduate Education program, the answers were clearly “yes.” Motivation, he says, is what interested students need to examine. After thinking it through, he met with the Director of Graduate Study in the Master’s program in Computer Science and his advisor in the School of Engineering. “They were very supportive,” he said.

Patel's research is in 3-D cell mechanics and mechanical characterization of biological materials. The experimental techniques that he uses lie at the interface between solid mechanics and computer vision. He will enter the Master’s program in Computer Science to learn more about computer graphics and computer vision as well as design and analysis of algorithms.  This knowledge will not only aid his research, he says, but also improve his prospects as a future professor.Mohak PatelMohak Patel

“This strong skill set will distinguish me,” says Patel.    

The Open Graduate Education program aligns the Graduate School with the spirit of Brown’s open undergraduate curriculum, a cornerstone of the University’s pedagogy.

“Students are able to define and pursue their own academic journeys,” said Peter M. Weber, Dean of the Graduate School. “Their drive to shape their education is supported by planning, faculty advising, and Graduate School programming that creates an intellectual community.”     

The fourth cohort includes:

  • Piotr Axer, Slavic Studies, seeks a Master’s in Philosophy
  • Xi Chen, Chemistry, pursues a Master’s in Computer Science
  • Louis Gularte, Philosophy, studies in Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences
  • Ian Laidley, Philosophy, seeks a Master’s degree in Classics
  • Samantha Lash, Archaeology and the Ancient World, undertakes studies in Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences
  • Chang Liu, Chemistry, enters the Program in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship Engineering
  • Bryan Markovitz, Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, seeks a Master’s in Anthropology (Focusing on Archaeology, Museums, and Material Culture)
  • Elizabeth McDonnell, Neuroscience, pursues a Master’s in Social Analysis and Research, a new program
  • Prannath Moolchand, Neuroscience, undertakes study in Applied Math
  • Mohak Patel, Engineering, enters the Computer Science program
  • Kara Pellowe-Wagstaff, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, seeks a Master’s degree in Sociology

Doctoral students who participate gain the flexibility and resources to pursue a master’s degree in a secondary field while they earn their doctorates at Brown. The aim is to enhance the educational options for excellent graduate students, without losing the depth of the doctoral inquiry, and to enable new interdisciplinary pursuits and careers.

Elizabeth McDonnellElizabeth McDonnell

For McDonnell, the opportunity serves short and long-term goals – and makes her Student No. 1 in a new master’s program of the Department of Sociology.  She comes to the Social Analysis and Research program with an undergraduate background in sociology and psychology and a longstanding interest in both the neurological and social aspects of mental health and illness.

“The methods-based sociology courses will track the cell work I need to do,” says McDonnell. The secondary studies will prepare her to analyze, for example, the social and economic factors of large cohorts that impact mental health at the cellular level. Seeing the information from two perspectives may well give her an “exciting niche,” she says.   

Gularte, a second-year doctoral student in Philosophy, says he feels “lucky to get in.”  For him, the Open Graduate Education program is a way to improve his dissertation, in which he expects to write on the nature of suffering. “I hope to do a chapter on what cognitive science says about relevant phenomena,” he explains. “It will expand the kinds of questions I consider.”

Louis GularteLouis Gularte

He learned about the program as a prospective student. After enrolling at Brown, he prepared himself to be a stronger Open Graduate Education applicant by taking two courses in Cognitive Science. Noting that different cultures, personality types and assumptions can influence disciplines, he states: “I want to make my views accountable to science.” 

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 2015-16. Participants receive additional financial support and professional development opportunities.

A team of deans and senior University administrators selected the participants from the applications received in February. They join the 27 participants from the prior three cohorts; a member of the first cohort received both degrees last May. The program typically receives around 20 applications, with academic programs helping to winnow the field ahead of the deadline.

This year, the humanities, life sciences and physical sciences are strongly represented. 

Six of the new participants will cross into a different disciplinary division. Two life science students will enter social science and one will explore physical science; three humanities candidates will cross into the sciences, with one each going into life, physical and social science.  

Open Graduate students gather on a nearly monthly basis to talk about how they are integrating their 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 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.

“We congratulate these students for developing plans to expand their intellectual horizons, pursue integrative research and differentiate their credentials,” says Weber. “Their pursuits will also enrich the intellectual discourse at Brown.”

Credits: Story by Beverly Larson; photos by Susan Ely.