Graduate fellowship bridges disciplines, universities

Two Ph.D. students at Washington State University, Chad Brock and Meredith Schulte, have been accepted into a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship program that aims to bridge the gap between anthropology and biology and produce professionals versed in evolutionary approaches integrating the study of biology and culture.

Photo: Meredith Schulte, Ph.D. student in evolutionary anthropology at WSU, is shown conducting research on spider populations inhabiting coastal sage scrub in Catalina Island, CA.

More formally known as “Model-based Approaches to Biological and Cultural Evolution,” the program is informally called “IPEM”, which stands for IGERT Program in Evolutionary Modeling. The IGERT program (Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship) is funded by the National Science Foundation. NSF will contribute approximately $3 million dollars towards IPEM training over the next five years. WSU and the University of Washington are partners in this training, with students admitted to UW spending a semester at WSU, and students admitted to WSU spending two quarters at UW.

IGERT fellows will be supported for two years—with the possibility of a third year of funding—at the rate of $30,000 per year plus full tuition and an annual supplement for research expenses of up to $8,000.

“The dollar amount associated with these grants is substantial,” said Timothy A. Kohler, professor of anthropology at WSU and coauthor of the NSF grant proposal. “For that reason, plus the prestige of the NSF association, and the cross-disciplinary nature of the program, these are very desirable fellowships.”

“I think cross-disciplinary collaboration and research is essential for meaningful science,” said Schulte, Ph.D. student in evolutionary anthropology . “The boundaries and limits of specific disciplines were created by humans, the scientists rather than the world they are studying. I think allowing for cross-disciplinary collaboration and research allows for new questions to be asked and a more complete understanding of many topics.”

Schulte’s research interest is using computer modeling based on data from field research to better understand the implications of evolutionary distance between primates, how this relates to primate cultural evolution and how each interacts with human cultural practices over time.

“In the last 10 years, there has been a growing realization that the really big problems in science are not going to be solved within one discipline,” said Jim Teeri, director of the IGERT National Recruitment Program. “The big complex problems, like those affecting the environment or advances in information technology, will require expertise from many areas.”

Students enter IPEM through the Department of Anthropology or the School of Biological Sciences at WSU Pullman, or through the Department of Anthropology at the UW Seattle. Fellows form research teams across these universities and disciplines, allowing them to draw on relevant expertise in either sponsoring university. In addition they have the opportunity to pursue research at partner institutions: the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico; the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, with branches in England, Scotland and Canada; Le Centre Universitaire de Recherche et de Documentation en Histoire et Archéologie, Central African Republic; and the University of Costa Rica.

“Getting in-depth exposure to talented faculty at WSU, UW and international universities is going to be a wonderful way to add breadth and depth to my graduate education,” Schulte said.

For more information on the WSU IPEM program, visit http://depts.washington.edu/ipem/.

For more information on the IGERT program, visit http://www.igert.org/.

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