NSF research traineeship offers new approach to STEM graduate education

A multidisciplinary team of George Mason University researchers is part of a groundbreaking approach by the National Science Foundation that could change the face of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduate education in the future.

Siddhartha Sikdar, a professor of bioengineering in Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering and the director of the  Center for Adaptive Systems of Brain-Body Interactions (CASBBI), leads a team that has received an NSF Research Traineeship grant of nearly $3 million.

More than 100 PhD students from electrical and bioengineering, data science, computer science, neuroscience and the social sciences, including some with disabilities, will be trained to use state-of-the-art data analytic methods and wearable computing technologies based on novel transdisciplinary competencies, applications and practice curriculum.

Siddhartha Sikdar. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services.

“As researchers, my students and I have had the great privilege to meet and work with a number of individuals living with disabilities,” Sikdar said. “Many are unable to fully participate in activities of daily living, but can benefit from rapid advances in technology. Being able to train students who care deeply about these problems, understand the underlying barriers and are trained to work across disciplinary boundaries to make a difference in people’s lives is a critical national need.”

“Our students will be able to go and not just devise a solution inside Mason. They’re going to actually do work with the community and develop solutions with the community,” said Stephanie Carmack, the assistant director of research operations for CASBBI.

The students who participate are expected to gain the societal skills needed to address complex societal problems as the next generation of scientific leaders. They will gain experience in convergent research, team science, communicating to broad audiences and entrepreneurship through structured activities as part of the program.

Researchers will promote data-driven solutions for disabilities that may carry significant social, public health and economic consequences. The hope is that the program becomes a national model.

Mason is among the 17 institutions from across the United States chosen to collectively split $49 million in grant money from the NSF’s Research Traineeship program with the aim of developing and implementing graduate education traineeship models in STEM fields.

“NRT projects are changing the graduate education landscape and preparing STEM scientists for 21st-century careers,” said Karen Marrongelle, the NSF assistant director for education and human resources. “These STEM graduate students collaborate with diverse groups of stakeholders to tackle complex problems, where solutions often involve large datasets and sophisticated analyses.”

Mason’s five-year grant, which began on Sept. 1, will involve 14 core faculty members from the CASBBI and an additional 15 other Mason faculty members from 14 departments and five schools and colleges.

“This prestigious NSF award is a terrific example of Mason’s world-class research of consequence,” said Deborah Crawford, Mason’s vice president for research, innovation and economic impact. “Professor Sikdar and his colleagues competed with hundreds of teams from the best universities in the country to win this award. It will support 100 Mason PhD students and involve many others who will develop new technologies, systems and approaches to improve the quality of life for individuals with disabilities. We couldn’t be prouder.”

Nearly one in five Americans lives with a disability that affects performance of their daily activities, including those that result from substance abuse disorders, autism spectrum disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and involve physical and psychological factors.

“The outcomes are going to be very concrete,” Sikdar said. “We anticipate that the trainee cohort will be able to help real people improve the quality of their lives.”

For more information about the program, go to casbbi.gmu.edu/training or contact Sikdar at ssikdar@gmu.edu