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Interdisciplinary PhD program


By David Sorensen

Memorial’s interdisciplinary (ID) PhD program is bringing together diverse realms of academic research, while supporting students with an eye for the unique.

When he’s not in his role as co-director of SafetyNet or acting associate director of the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Dr. Scott MacKinnon is the director of the ID PhD program. He said the offering reflects a trend in academics of moving away from research taking place in isolation.

“ID looks at creating new paradigms for research, ways to collect data, ways to analyze data, ways to report or communicate data once it's completed,” he explained. “A lot of the projects you see coming from an ID paradigm not only have researchers but stakeholders. So it makes the findings of the research considerably more valuable to the stakeholders because they are part of asking the questions and doing the research.”

Dr. MacKinnon said the tri-council funding agencies – SSHRC and CIHR and NSERC – are looking toward these interdisciplinary models.

“That's how health informatics started, that's how computer science started. It gives a great opportunity to retain a lot of quality students who had sort of matured as academics through their master's programs but didn't quite have a PhD program that fit where they were going.”

Not only are the areas of study diverse, but students now in the program are coming from a variety of interests.

“One is looking at linguistics in international business; another person is looking at police decision-making skills both from a training and a psychological perspective,” he explained. “One person is looking at the community and home school resources needed to accommodate children at risk for crime; the Beothuk narratives, which is kind of neat; food security, looking at the fishing sector and Newfoundland in terms of food security.”

Memorial’s School of Graduate Studies identified a need for an ID PhD program about three or four years ago. A committee was struck to examine different models and make recommendations. Dr. MacKinnon said Memorial’s committee was fortunate to be guided by Carolyn Watters who is now the dean of graduate studies at Dalhousie and the program here is modelled much like the Dal model.
Right now there are eight students in the program. One student is Kristen Lowitt, who completed her master’s in environmental studies at Dalhousie where she became keenly interested in food studies and local food security issues. She wanted to continue that research at the PhD level and the feedback she received when enquiring about Memorial’s program convinced her to sign up for the ID program.

“When I found out about this program and put together a proposal, it was really easy to contact faculty members to at least talk about the proposed topic and get feedback even before applying,” she said.

She is examining community food systems development on the west coast of Newfoundland and integrate fisheries into that discussion.

"To me food is an inherently interdisciplinary topic. It's something that go all these different realms – social, economic, political.”

Her co-supervisors are Dr. Barb Neis of SafetyNet and Dr. Charles Mather in the Geography Department. Her committee includes Dr. Sean Cadigan, History, Dr. Shirley Solberg in Nursing and Ralph Martin at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College.

Dr. MacKinnon said he’s pleased with the progress of the program in the two short years it’s been underway. He said the program has been greatly helped by the support of the School of Graduate Studies. He said there are still challenges in building the community infrastructure that a graduate program deserves.
Students or faculty who want to learn more about the program can contact Dr. Mackinnon or see www.mun.ca/become/graduate/programs/InterdisciplinaryPhD.php.
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