Dr. William W. Thatcher
UF Department of Animal Sciences
2001-2002 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I feel strongly that interdisciplinary programs are essential both for training students and maintaining one’s own knowledge base. In this type of setting, one needs to be open, willing to share ideas and give a high priority to making interdisciplinary efforts work. At the same time you need to constantly challenge your results, concepts, dogma and be open minded to alternative interpretations. I try to imprint this on my graduate students. Graduate students need a cross-section of formal courses in the areas of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Physiology, and Experimental Design and Statistics, as well as selected specialty courses that best fit the interests of the student. Enrollment in a variety of formal courses develops the student’s knowledge base in these disciplines, which can then be applied when developing their skills such that research areas for investigation are broadened. In all likelihood, there will not be such a sustained opportunity for formal courses in their subsequent careers. I am a firm believer of following carefully and rigorously the principles of the scientific method. After selecting a basic and/or applied research area with the student, we identify what we consider to be a novel idea that leads to a stated hypothesis. We attempt to design a sensitive experiment to test the hypothesis based upon our experience in the area. In all instances, the research question drives what methodological techniques are utilized and not vice versa. Data collected are analyzed extensively, results are summarized and presented at a scientific meeting, and a peer review journal article is prepared for publication. I try to instill students with the qualities needed to defend their findings but be open-minded relative to alternative interpretations that are critical to formulating the next hypothesis. The project for the Master of Science student is fairly structured by me, and it is expected that a PhD student develop more independence in his/her program. This comes about with acquired experience, being in an interdisciplinary environment with exposure to a variety of research areas and people, and acquisition of skills to think independently. With this development, it is exciting as the student and mentor develop the research problem together in an enthusiastic manner. As scientific maturity of the student develops, student and mentor become mutual scientific critics. A major goal in my training program is to develop each student to their maximal potential during their time under my guidance. The interdisciplinary environment and stimulation will accommodate the greatest diversity of student intellect, motivation and technical skills. Appointment of a graduate student’s committee is extremely important. The student and I try to appoint a committee that will be most helpful to the student, and the student is encouraged to interact with committee members beyond just formal committee meetings. It is not unusual to have a co-chairmanship when a student bridges diverse disciplines. It is imperative that students develop their personal skills of communication (oral and written) so that they, as well as faculty, can maintain their own sense of identity within an interdisciplinary program. To foster skills with the scientific method, deductive reasoning and oral communications, my students are encouraged to attend our weekly seminar of the Interdisciplinary Reproductive Biology group. I maintain daily open-door communication with students and I am involved directly with their research projects. I try to implement weekly laboratory meetings if at all possible. We discuss design of new experiments, ideas for a thesis or dissertation topic, review data from recent experiments, review literature topics for specific papers with emphasis on utilizing the scientific method, reports on meetings attended, information on new techniques, and a forum to interact with visitors. I expect the student to be disciplined and demonstrate a strong work ethic. Their time is their own to manage, although we maintain close communication in this area. We develop writing skills by joint writing and critique of manuscripts, and I involve my students in the peer review process of journal articles that I am responsible for. Every effort is made to prepare a thesis and dissertation in a polished form with appropriate iterations of committee input prior to the defense. To date, I have trained 16 Master of Science students, 23 PhD students and eight post-doctorate associates. At the present time I have four PhD and one MS students.