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Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Training and Scholarship in Water and Energy Continue to Thrive Despite COVID-19
Entering its final year of National Science Foundation funding, the EMPOWER (Education Model Program on Water-Energy Research) program at Syracuse University has delivered powerful lessons on interdisciplinary approaches to graduate education.
Originally led by Principal Investigator Laura Lautz and more recently by Professor Charles Driscoll, EMPOWER is a comprehensive graduate research training program that equips students with the content knowledge and professional skills necessary to pursue academic and non-academic careers at the water-energy nexus. Defined as the interrelationship between human needs for water and energy, the “water-energy nexus” is a priority for researchers nationally and globally, according to Driscoll, University Professor of Environmental Systems and Distinguished Professor in the College of Engineering and Computer Science.
Today, EMPOWER brings together graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, and the College of Engineering and Computer Science to participate in shared professional development, education and research activities related to the water-energy nexus. “EMPOWER combines broad training across management, policy, communication and law with in-depth training in a self-designed focus area that is most applicable to the trainee’s career objectives,” says Driscoll.
Driscoll says despite the pandemic, EMPOWER has had a successful year thanks to the efforts of the University’s talented and energetic students, faculty and staff. Highlights include a suite of professional development activities, award winning research and the largest and most diverse cohort of Ph.D. students in EMPOWER’s history, enrolled in Fall 2019.
For example, trainee Lachlan Wright and faculty leadership member Christopher Scholz, professor of earth and environmental sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, published a paper in the journal Tectonics and presented their work at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco. In addition, trainee Julianne Sweeney also won two prestigious awards from the American Geophysical Union. In the last year, 10 graduate trainees completed their Ph.D. or master’s degrees and have found employment. Graduates are now working in private industry, for government agencies, as environmental consultants or in higher education.
“With the strength of our professional schools coupled with the College of Arts and Sciences, I believe EMPOWER could be an innovative model for future graduate interdisciplinary training in the sciences, engineering and computer science, social sciences and information science at Syracuse University,” says Driscoll.
Trainees in the program have several specialized courses and resources available. All students complete a one-credit seminar each semester featuring current issues at the water-energy nexus. In addition, research training, professional development and presentations by visiting lecturers help trainees understand specific ways that classroom learning can be applied in the field of their endeavor. Students are supported through coursework that provides focused training in professional skills. This coursework is tailored to students’ self-identified career trajectory. To help bridge any gaps in communications skills, trainees enroll in a three-credit course designed to improve skills in public communication of science. Every graduate student in EMPOWER also receives a “career pathway experience” that is designed to develop research activities that integrate professional development to support their career goals.
Other specialized support includes domestic and international field experiences where trainees learn to make field measurements that would support their research or career work with faculty under challenging conditions as a unifying capstone experience. Field experience is especially useful preparation for careers requiring intensive collaboration. EMPOWER’s faculty developed an integrated field course that is implemented either in the northeastern U.S. and Rwanda that weaves together EMPOWER’s research and training themes. To supplement their training, Syracuse University also offers trainees opportunities to apply for grants to support specific lines of emerging research or professional development activities that would not occur through traditional research grants or assistantships.
Future activities planned for EMPOWER include cultivating students’ professional development by offering mock review and paper reviews, resume development in collaboration with staff at the Graduate School, interview support and data visualization workshops. Tentatively, depending on public health conditions related to COVID-19, the program is planning to offer an international field course covering concepts at the water-energy nexus through hands-on exercises, student mini projects and demonstrations. This work would take place at various field sites on and near Lake Kivu in Rwanda.
“Our goal is to produce graduates with not only in-depth content knowledge, but also strong oral and written communication skills, a multidisciplinary perspective, entrepreneurial and project management skills, a sense of professionalism, and an understanding of how knowledge in one area can be applied across broad context,” says Driscoll.