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The National Science Foundation has awarded Oregon State University a new 5-year grant for $3 million, the university announced Tuesday.

The grant will establish a new program called the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship, which is aimed at improving the way graduate students are educated to give them more cross disciplinary experience, said Lorenzo Ciannelli, a professor of ocean ecology who is a principal investigator on the project. They do this, he said, by forming graduate students into small cohorts of students from different disciplines that work together on research.

Ciannelli said most of the money from the grant will pay for fellowships for graduate students.

Ciannelli said the traditional path for graduate students is to earn their degrees and pursue careers in academia, but there are many opportunities in industry, at government agencies and non-governmental agencies, if they have experience working with people from outside their discipline. He said the norm is for graduate students in science to focus on a narrow area of their discipline and work by themselves.

“The overarching goal is to expose students to new disciplines,” he said. He added that many pressing problems in science require a multidisciplinary approach.

For example, he said a team of oceanographers working on a study about fisheries might make recommendations for how to strengthen it that for political and economic reasons could never be implemented. But an oceanographer and a policy expert working together may be able to create a scientifically grounded recommendation that could have a better chance of being implemented.

Ciannelli said that the innovative part about the project is having students work in cohorts of two or three. This way students can be focused on their own specialty, but the groups have a capacity to do more than the individual.

“Every time we invented a new discipline, it came from merging two disciplines,” he said.

According to Ciannelli, a key element of the new program is that it has a focus on analyzing large sets of data, such as decades worth of fisheries data that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collects, or the large amounts of data produced by OSU’s remote oceanic sensors.

Ciannelli said a qualifier for students entering the program will be an interest in analyzing data.

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Anthony Rimel can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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Education