Catalyzing change in STEM graduate education: The power of 'use-inspired' research

At Lehigh University, an emerging and powerful collaboration between academia and industry is helping create a fundamentally new model for science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate education. Students in the Pasteur PhD Partners (P3) program work directly in industry, focusing their research on a real-world problem while building critical skills they need to thrive in their future workplaces. Professor and principal investigator Himanshu Jain, Lehigh Provost Nathan Urban and Gary Calabrese , former senior vice president and head of global research at Corning Incorporated, have worked closely to champion the P3 model as a vital step in advancing the kind of STEM research that will spark urgent innovation. In this conversation, they share how the P3 program can serve as a national model for supporting a new generation of STEM leaders prepared to address our most pressing societal challenges.  

What was the original vision for this IGE project? When it comes to innovation, why is bridging the gap between industry and academia so vital?  

Jain: What prompted us to write the proposal was a statement that I would hear talking to our colleagues in industry. They often said Lehigh Ph.D.s were exceptionally smart — but that they don't "think like us." When we dug deeper, we learned that the way we were training the students was not fully optimized to prepare them to be a part of industry workplaces. And once we completed an extensive analysis of the status of STEM Ph.D.s in the U.S., we realized this problem was actually quite pervasive across the country.

Although the number of STEM Ph.D.s has increased more than seven times over the last 70 years since WWII, the way we train the students has changed very little. We continue to train doctoral students to become professors like ourselves. It hasn't adapted to the needs of the tremendous advances in technology that shape our society, and it hasn't adapted to the reality that most STEM Ph.D.s are not planning to become academics. At the core, what we're trying to do now is advance STEM training so that we are truly preparing students for the workforce — whether that's in a corporation, a national lab, defense organizations, healthcare institutes, nonprofits and beyond.

Urban: Absolutely. As an institution, we want to make sure that we are providing students with the kind of education and experiences they need to thrive in their chosen career. We have many students who are exploring — or already committed to — careers outside academia. As most university faculty do not have extensive experience working for large industrial companies, we have to have a little humility and recognize that we need to draw on the expertise of others to provide students with the holistic training they need. And so, a partnership with industry was both a natural and powerful approach. It allows us to better prepare students for the future — giving them the tools to innovate and to drive cutting-edge research in many fields.

In that way, we're also able to deepen our institution's broader impact on society. We want to contribute to critical research that will help make the U.S. and the state of Pennsylvania economically competitive. Through this project, we're helping to create an ecosystem of talented leaders ready to achieve their highest purpose and to drive innovation in the decades to come.

Calabrese: When you think about the roots of innovation, it really comes down to learning — teaching people to grapple with problems and giving them the skills to imagine and realize new solutions. That's what this program is really all about. It's giving our future workforce stronger insights into how to address the challenges we face in our industry to break barriers and spark new growth. That kind of innovative thinking can ultimately make our society stronger — and have a profound impact on all of us.

What are the core characteristics of the program? How does it support students, while spurring collaboration between academia and industry?  

Jain: We named the P3 after Louis Pasteur, because not only is he considered to be the father of microbiology, but he's identified as someone who really focused on use-inspired research. He used his work to confront critical challenges society was facing in the moment. In academia, "use" is often not the focus of our work. It's our colleagues in industry who understand customers' demand, know what innovation is needed to meet that demand and what research is needed to spark that innovation. So really this program was founded through reaching out to our colleagues in industry and engaging them in helping us train Ph.D. students who will largely work in their sector.

At its core, the design of the program focuses on developing how a student approaches a real-life problem. Of course, there are tools and skills to learn, but it's critical for graduate school programs to address how someone's mind works through solving a challenge. What we're trying to do in this P3 training is to help students not only to build important skills, but also to deepen their ability to approach and process working through a technical problem. It's difficult to quantify, but I think people with the ability to work through critical challenges will become leaders — in industry, but also in academics and in any other field. I really hope that the lasting impact of this model will be shifting how we approach that kind of training in a STEM Ph.D. program.

Calabrese: I think that's an excellent point. One of the things we've seen is that people who are the most successful in their careers have the ability to approach problems with a sense of fearlessness — and the capacity to collaborate effectively. People who are comfortable getting out of their comfort zones and have a hunger to learn, even if they make mistakes, have the potential to spark innovation. That's something that can be imprinted during the Ph.D. process and something this program really emphasizes.

Students have the chance to focus on a project that's of interest to both the university — perhaps to publish a paper or secure a patent — and to the industry partner as well. That could mean working in a space that may lead to a new product being developed and exploring things that aren't fully understood yet — like how we could apply quantum mechanics or quantum technology into communications. Students are able to leverage that academic exploration into learning how to approach their own research in an industrial lab.

It's exciting for them to work on something that could result in a big future discovery. But ultimately, it's about creating opportunities for students to learn how we think and do work here at Corning. We take a lot of care in choosing mentors who can provide crucial oversight in the industrial lab — providing students with strong advice and guidance, so that they complete the process with the skills and experience they need for the future.

Urban: Exactly. At Lehigh, we're focused on student outcomes — and making sure students have the tools, skills, and relationships to be successful once they leave our campus. This project is an essential part of that effort. Through Dr. Jain's work, we learned from industry partners what skills Ph.D. candidates really need to have to be successful — and what areas of focus are going to be more important in ten years than they are today. Grounded in those insights, this program was designed to give students the skills and experience they need to become contributors and leaders in those spaces.

That includes a focus on both timely and timeless skills. Timely skills are the things they'll need to be successful in that first job; to meet expectations with a minimal amount of on-the-job training because they are already prepared. But even more crucial are the timeless skills that may be just as important twenty years down the road — how to identify problems, ask questions, and to work productively with groups of people from different backgrounds and from different fields. We heard clearly from companies that, while they wanted students with fluency in data and other core skills, they were even more focused on bringing on employees with the capacity to collaborate, negotiate and lead. Those are all skills we're developing through this program.

What are some of the most promising impacts so far? What's most exciting about what you're seeing?

Jain: We're still at the beginning of the program and working with somewhat limited data. But so far, the assessment that was conducted by one of our colleagues in the College of Education seems quite promising. What we're seeing is that the students who have gone through this program feel a lot more comfortable and confident in themselves in really taking up a research problem.
There is also tremendous excitement among student applicants about the possibility of doing their Ph.D. in part at Lehigh and in part at an industrial or national lab. Two years ago, when we were launching the program, more than 90% of the graduate program applicants we asked expressed interest in the approach and the opportunity to work in industry through their graduate education.
Before the program even begins, we ask students to participate in a pre-program summer internship, to develop an understanding of the environment and get a sense of why they would want to spend four or five years of their lives on a research problem in that space. And the response to those has been quite positive.

Urban: There is no limit to the demand on the student side. Right now, the limiting factor is really the number of partnerships we have with companies like Gary's in Corning. But we're trying to grow that supply side by expanding our pool of companies and other organizations excited to work with these students.

One crucial step right now is changing the narrative that Ph.D.s only work in academia. Today, more and more Ph.D.s are building careers in industry and government and with nonprofits working in the social sciences and humanities. These are often referred to, inappropriately I think, as alternative careers. We know now they are not alternatives — non-academic careers are now dominant for Ph.D.s. I think we've recognized that the nature of the training we provide must change to prepare students to do the things that they want to pursue. It's exciting to be on the cusp of this critical shift to graduate education.     

Calabrese: Corning's relationship to Lehigh has always been so valuable, but it's been exciting to see our interests overlap so significantly with this program — in terms of advancing technology and building a stronger future workforce. Now we just need to get the message out that we're already having success in these early days — and that the long-term potential is really significant. If we continue to build on these early successes, I know more companies and organizations will want to get involved and build on them.

Looking out to the future, what are your hopes going forward as the program develops?

Urban: Of course, I'd love to expand the number of students who can participate here at Lehigh. But more broadly, someday I'd love to see the leadership at a third of the top technology-focused companies in the U.S. be graduates from a program like this. Whether it's a CEO, or chief science or technical officer or another role, it would be phenomenal to have leaders at those organizations who have been educated in this way — to understand how academic research is vital to meet needs in other industries. If we're successful in doing that in this country, I think we will be able to create the kind of innovation that we need to solve some of our most important problems that have technical solutions, particularly those related to health care and climate change.

We want to catalyze change, not just at Lehigh but across graduate education. Success for us is contributing to a national model for how Ph.D.s are educated. 

Jain: I agree completely. My hope is that this model helps to optimize our system of graduate education — so that students are aware of the career choices they have, and that universities train them to thrive in the workplaces they choose. We do this all the time at the undergraduate level, but we haven't caught up for Ph.D. students. Doing so is the key to leveraging the power of graduate-level research to address our most pressing societal needs.