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Oxford University might be an institution steeped in tradition, but its latest doctoral training programme adopts a somewhat revolutionary approach. The first students arrived at the new Doctoral Training Centre in October, and they are now getting involved in a truly interdisciplinary postgraduate experience.

The new DPhil programme is designed to provide students from a traditional background in maths, physics, and engineering with the skills they need to work at the interface with life sciences. "There is a huge demand for physical scientists within the life sciences," says David Gavaghan, Programme Director of the new centre, "but you can't expect people with a physics or computer science degree to go off and work there with no training."

So before beginning the traditional 3-year research project (an interdisciplinary one, of course), incoming students will first go through a thorough 1-year initiation that will both bring them up to speed in biology and refine their theoretical and technical knowledge of the physical sciences. During their first two terms, students will undertake six 3-week core modules on basic biology, molecular and cellular biology, experimental techniques for studying DNA and proteins, mathematical modelling, and scientific computing, statistical methods, and biological physics. During the summer, they will be able to specialise in their area of interest by picking three advanced modules from a choice of statistics, bioinformatics, image analysis, signal processing, nanotechnology, and biomolecular structure and simulations. Students will also take a hands-on approach with two 3-month projects, one being carried out in a lab to offer a first taste of experimental research.

With all that under their belts, they will embark on their research project, the goal being to apply their understanding and technical skills in the physical sciences to solving problems in the life sciences. Students will be able to work according to their area of specialisation at one of three flagship interdisciplinary projects in Oxford: the Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC) in Bionanotechnology, the IRC in Medical Imaging and Signals, and the Oxford Centre for Gene Function, expected to open later this year.

Throughout the 4 years, a strong emphasis will be put on communication and teamwork. "The main barrier across disciplines is language," says Gavaghan. "Knowing what the terms mean, pitching your talk so that people can understand [it], and getting the most out of the literature are going to be crucial." The students will come together for half a day per week throughout their studies for workshops, reading groups, and seminars at the life sciences interface. Students will also receive close individual supervision. During their first year, they will be assigned a member of the centre as an academic supervisor with whom they will be able to discuss progress and issues. For the rest of the programme, they will keep a member of the centre as mentor while having a research supervisor from their specific area and a secondary one from the life sciences.

"During a traditional PhD, you might do some preliminary reading, formulate a novel scientific question, and begin your research without any specific extra training," says Gavaghan, so you have to pick it up as you go along. "Here, when you do start your main PhD research project after the initial training period, you are in the position to undertake a project you understand, and you have the tools to make immediate progress, which is not true in other PhDs."

Tania Saxl, one of two women among the incoming class of nine students, is enjoying that breathing space. "I have friends who started a PhD as well, and they just have too much to cope with--it is restricting the time to do research," she says. She also appreciates the higher degree of support at the centre. "We are really lucky to have the time, the funding, and people you can always talk to and who are all leaders in their fields," says Saxl. For fellow student Ella Chase, the emphasis on teamwork is especially important in Oxford, where competition is traditionally fierce. She sees the programme as a "very attractive option, being 4 years that are very secure and really interesting," and she adds that "even if I don't become a researcher, these skills are applicable in other ways."

Another major difference with more traditional PhDs, and part of the programme's attractiveness, has to be its funding. All of the university fees and training expenses are paid for, along with a stipend of £10,000 a year. There is even a bit of extra money towards research expenses. The Centre's opening was made possible by a £5.3 million award from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), together with the Medical Research Council (MRC), which will provide funding for 50 PhD students over 5 years. Oxford University has chipped in, too, bringing this number to 65. Funding is therefore available to 13 UK or EC students each year (although students from elsewhere in the EC need to provide their own funding towards the non-fee-related expenses), and the centre hopes to attract international students to bring the final number of students to 20 a year.

"The driving force was the funding from the EPSRC, but we were ready to answer the call," says Gavaghan. A mathematician by training, Gavaghan has spent the last 15 years undertaking theoretical medical research, funded by the Wellcome Trust and MRC, in the anaesthetics department in Oxford. "I thought 'what kind of training would I have liked to receive 15 years ago for my research?' " he says. He describes the training programme as a combination of his wish list and other peoples' experience, plus what is needed for the research areas of the three partner centres.

But, as you would expect, if the new DPhil programme has unique advantages, it also poses some unique challenges, not the least of which is its intensity. "A willingness to learn a lot of things in a short space of time, to be prepared to help one another, and [to] present unfamiliar material before an audience," are essential, comments Gavaghan. For Chase, "the challenge is [to combine] the breadth of subjects and the relevant depth"; you just can't know a little about everything. "You have to specialise and link that up to reach out." Meanwhile, Saxl thinks that the greatest challenge for students will be to avoid becoming classified by their bachelor's degrees. "You have to be open minded and responsive to other points of view," she emphasises.

So why should young scientists want to become interdisciplinary? Saxl's own interest came from her experience in a chemistry lab during the third-year project of her physics degree. "I noticed there were people from all backgrounds, all bringing each other's expertise together," she says. It made her realise that she wanted to understand and relate to people from different disciplines. Chase comes from the other side of the interface, with a degree in human sciences that involved anthropology, biology, and statistics. She wanted to do a PhD, but one that would be very broad, so she could keep her options open. "I was very keen to learn about maths and statistics and programming and want to be in the position to make the most of [the physical and life sciences worlds]," she says.

To the researchers behind the new centre, interdisciplinarity is simply the way forward in science. "We are now trying to understand what life is all about--how the body works from [the level of] DNA molecules to the entire system," enthuses Gavaghan. Skills from different disciplines will help make sense of the overwhelming amount of data being generated. Bioinformatics is a prime example of how biology, mathematics, statistics, and computer sciences were brought together to analyse the data from the Human Genome Project. "If we want to solve the fundamental problems in science, then it has to be in an innovative, multidisciplinary way," says Gavaghan.

Applications are now open for the next academic year. "We want people with a strong interest in their own subject and in its applications in medicine and biology," says Gavaghan. Ideal candidates will also have a good track record in their own disciplines and a strong interest in communicating science. "You should think very carefully about what attracts you to the programme; it is not for everybody," he warns. You should also prepare yourself to answer questions on your motivations, what research you'd like to do, and how the training would meet your needs. "Have a look on the Web and see if you can think of how your subject may be applied in [the life sciences]," he advises. "Be incredibly enthusiastic," encourages Chase. "Be very energetic; show you are curious, inspired." And have an attitude that tells them: "Let me in or I will keep knocking on your door!"

The Doctoral Training Centre is holding an open day at the Clarenden Laboratory in Oxford on 5 February from 2 to 5 p.m., which offers an ideal opportunity to find out more. Anyone interested in attending or applying for a place on the programme starting in 2003 should contact the programme administrator or call +44 1865 283 521 for an application form.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.