The Background

In 2011, the world saw the first open field release of a genetically engineered mosquito in association with a project aimed at suppressing dengue fever. How will societies and environments react to this new technology? And, what implications will these reactions have for ongoing research and application? The history of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offers ambiguous answers to these questions. Insulin, produced by genetically engineered microbes, appears to have been universally embraced. Other products, such as transgenic crops like Bt cotton and GM corn, have been controversial enough to garner political protest and change the tenor of relations within and between their associated commercial and academic scientific communities.

The Opportunity

In the Expertise Triangle, an individual student’s knowledge base is a single point (.). If a student has equal knowledge of all three areas, her/his point would sit exactly at the center of the triangle. The further the point is from any corner of the triangle, the lower the student’s knowledge of that area relative to others. The points placed near the corners of this expertise triangle represent the knowledge base expected of students in classical graduate programs. In our program, trainees work with mentors to design individualized education paths expected to result in a knowledge base within the shaded area.

The advent of Genetic Pest Management (GPM) offers an opportunity to learn from past experiences and train a generation of students before wide-scale application creates consequences for which GPM researchers, and the communities these hope to aid, are poorly prepared. The pest species linked to such engineering range from insects to rodents and from pests of large-scale agriculture to invasive pests of endangered species. Students interested in GPM and, more broadly, in the social and ecological consequences of new technologies, must be able to evaluate whether, when, and how GPM technologies might be utilized.

Students must have a combined depth of training in the technological manipulation of pest genomes, the ecology of pests and their habitats, and how people in diverse socio-cultural contexts attend to the risks associated with new technologies.

Because research on transgenic pests is at the prototypical stage, new trainees will be at the forefront of these interdisciplinary evaluations. Classical PhD programs recognize a trade-off between breadth and depth, and often aim almost exclusively for depth. We recognize that no single student could develop true expertise in all areas of our program because of this trade-off. However, the premise of this IGERT is that there is not a simple linear trade-off, and that individual students, provided multiple paths toward achieving integrative education, will choose a path that fits their unique interests, and they will accumulate more breadth and depth than expected from the linear assumption. The Expertise Triangle (left) generally models our students’ expected educational paths and knowledge outcomes, and it contrasts these with what we consider today’s classical graduate programs.

The Challenge and Goals

In the face of rapid advances in the molecular technology behind GPM, researchers and observers of this progress are concerned that examination of the ecological and social issues associated with the technology has been insufficient. Thus, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Pew Initiative in Food Safety and the USDA have each conducted limited research and/or held symposia on ecological and socio-cultural questions related to GPM. A number of high-profile articles have also addressed this topic. While each of these efforts is valuable in its own way, they have been piecemeal, and an interdisciplinary framework for understanding and evaluating GPM is lacking.

Our IGERT program was the first to establish an axis for interdisciplinary conversations among universities, governments, and the broader GPM community. At the same time, we view GPM as exemplary of new technologies of a specific kind, technologies for which intensive integration of biological and social sciences is needed for comprehensive assessments, public education, and appropriate product development to take place. In this way, GPM shares a general profile with nanotechnology, gene therapy, climate manipulation, and other technological endeavors where concerned citizens may object that “just because it can be done doesn’t mean it should be done”. While the IGERT training has focused on GPM, it has also examined GPM in this broader context and thereby preparing our graduates for careers in settings where the interaction of diverse actors (including a lay public) must take into account sophisticated methodologies and discipline-specific vocabularies.

Our specific goals were to:

Back to top