Sue Marsh, Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, 509-358-7718, firstname.lastname@example.org
WSU nutrition/exercise Ph.D. returns: Strong array of skills required for success
By Doug Nadvornick, WSU Spokane, and Lorraine Nelson, College of Pharmacy
Sue Marsh, right, in the lab with students, including Ph.D. student Heidi Medford, center.
SPOKANE, Wash. – "I want to start my presentation with a story,” student Kari Jo Hilgendorf began. "My family knows a girl who was taken from her home when she was 2, due to severe neglect.” The girl is now 8 and still dealing with the trauma, and Hilgendorf wondered if exercise might help her and other victims of abuse.
So Hilgendorf is designing a clinical study that will explore her hypothesis as part of her Ph.D. work in nutrition and exercise physiology (NEP) at Washington State University’s health sciences campus in Spokane. She believes slow, gentle forms of exercise, such as yoga or tai chi, will help some people. Others, she said, might need more vigorous workouts.
Hilgendorf is one of a handful of students in the NEP program’s newly revised Ph.D. track, which began in August after an absence of a few years.
Original investigation and analysis
The process of earning a Ph.D. usually takes 4-6 years and culminates in a written thesis.
"Students have to produce a body of work,” said Susan A. Marsh, assistant professor and director of the NEP doctoral degree program. "They have to ask an original question about something that hasn’t been resolved and then do the work to find an answer.”
What makes a good Ph.D. student?
"They aren’t necessarily the students who are the most technically proficient or have the highest grade point average,” Marsh said. The students who are most likely to succeed and excel in the program are those who ask good questions and who can analyze and make sense of the data they collect.
"I want students who can think,” she said. Developing critical thinking skills is an integral part of a doctoral program. That development occurs both through coursework and working closely with faculty mentors on their dissertation research.
Diverse skills and resilience
Marsh also looks for students who can learn a variety of other skills, such as interviewing participants in experiments, making cell cultures and supervising undergraduate research assistants.
And she wants students who bounce back when something doesn’t pan out in the lab.
"It can be a blow to their ego when data don’t support their hypothesis,” Marsh said. "Some students struggle with this but then learn that science is rarely black and white, and unexpected results can often lead to new questions and more exciting discoveries.”
Aggressive scholarship and research
Graduate education is a critical element in the aggressive pursuit of scholarship expected of faculty at a research-intensive university, said Gary M. Pollack, vice provost of WSU Health Sciences and dean of the College of Pharmacy, administrative home of the NEP doctoral program.
"If we want to continue to improve health care – and we do – we need to continue to train scientists to explore the issues,” he said. "In other words, to ask the appropriate questions and pursue answers.”
Communicating work and findings
Another important characteristic of good Ph.D. students is the ability to tell others about their work, Marsh said.
"Students need to learn how to communicate their science to different audiences,” she said. "They have to get beyond their jargon and explain things in simple language, if necessary.”
To hone this skill, Marsh requires Ph.D. candidates to lead seminars, such as the one in which Kari Jo Hilgendorf told the story of the neglected child.
Like Hilgendorf, doctoral student Heidi Medford took her turn before a small group of her peers and faculty members. She explained the anatomy of the heart, moved into a technical discussion about how exercise affects it and then answered audience questions.
"Science is nothing if you can’t communicate it,” Medford said.
Learning to learn and teach
"A Ph.D. is really about learning how to learn,” she said. "Yes, the subject matter is difficult, and we do take classes, but there are no textbooks. The bulk of our time is spent studying what other scientists have done, critically analyzing the findings and thinking of ways to apply what they’ve found to what we are learning.”
In addition to classes and research, she also teaches.
"It’s at least a 60-hour work week,” Medford said, "so you have to really want to be here. In fact, probably the hardest thing to learn in graduate school is that everything can’t be perfect all of the time.”
Once she completes her degree, however, Medford believes she will be well qualified for any career path she chooses. She credits Marsh with pushing her harder – in a good way - than she thought possible: "Hopefully, some day, I will be half the teacher she is.”