The Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program at the National Science Foundation is intended to establish new models for graduate education and training in a fertile environment for collaborative research that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries. Recognizing the strength of our transdisciplinary doctoral programs, the National Science Foundation awarded UMass Boston an IGERT grant to address the challenges that coastal communities face (NSF DGE 1249946, IGERT: Coasts and Communities – Natural and Human Systems in Urbanizing Environments). Our program, Coasts and Communities, will train a new kind of environmental problem solver, one able to think and act across disciplinary and geographic boundaries and to develop and implement sustainable solutions to pressing environmental problems facing coasts and communities.
Collaboration and teamwork are at the core of the Coasts and Communities Program. Fellows can earn degrees in environmental science, environmental biology, marine science and technology, global governance and human security, or organizations and social change. They also participate in transdisciplinary core courses, an Environmental Innovations Clinic program, and international research in the Horn of Africa. Fellows actively participate in seminars that emphasize integration of disciplinary and geographic perspectives that extend beyond their home discipline. Ultimately, the program will develop the fellows’ analytical and problem-solving skills, connect them with individuals and institutions across fields and across the world, and make them competent and competitive in today’s global marketplace.
The goals of the program are to:
1. Initiate transdisciplinary careers by providing an immersive, experiential 2-year program embedded within 5 doctoral programs focused on comparing the complex systems of the Horn of Africa and Coastal Massachusetts.
2. Foster a culture of collaboration and communication to support transdisciplinary research and education at UMass Boston.
3. Develop opportunities for transdisciplinary coastal, environmental research on local, national, and global scales.
The interaction of coastal areas and the human communities that inhabit them presents a range of complex environmental and social challenges and opportunities which have proven difficult to investigate using traditional, single-discipline approaches. The Coasts and Communities program teaches a transdisciplinary approach to exploring the connections between the dynamics of human and natural systems. In particular, the program addresses the pressures that human activities exert on linked coastal systems and the effects of changing ecosystem dynamics on these human communities.
Three broad research questions define the Coasts and Communities Program:
- How do human activities alter ecosystem structure and function in linked coastal systems (ocean, lakes, estuaries and rivers)?
- How do altered ecosystem dynamics affect ecosystem goods and services and, through them, human activity?
- What are the solutions to emerging environmental and societal problems, how do they vary across geographical, political, and economic contexts, and how can these solutions be implemented?
Taken in combination, the three core questions frame a three-pronged transdisciplinary research approach. They serve as templates for specific research questions, which individual fellows can pursue.
By framing the individual fellows’ research questions as specific instances of three inherently transdisciplinary core questions, this research framework has several notable advantages:
- It directs individual fellows to adopt a transdisciplinary approach in their own research in their respective fields – environmental science, environmental biology, global governance & human security or organizations & social change
- It provides the context for fellows to learn to work collaboratively across fields and across the spectrum from assessing environmental problems to devising, implementing, and evaluating solutions
- It will produce a comprehensive, coherent and transdisciplinary understanding of coupled natural-human systems in linked coastal areas; and
- The research will help create scientifically sound and practically relevant methodologies and tools for assessing and addressing environmental risks and improving the resilience of such systems, resulting in broader, tangible benefits.