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An early iteration of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Informatics (aka IGPI) began at the University of Iowa 19 years ago, but the number of student participants increased 70 percent since 2015 under Iowa Informatics Initiative (UI3) administration. In the past academic year, 40 master’s and PhD IGPI students were enrolled, compared to 28 in 2015. More than 100 faculty from 40 collegiate programs and departments participate, and hundreds of UI3 Affiliates serve as ambassadors that collaborate, advise and share lessons learned.

As for degree programs, IGPI scholars may pursue an Informatics PhD, Master of Science in Informatics, or an Informatics Certificate in Bioinformatics, Geoinformatics, Health Informatics and Information Science.

The biggest benefit of IGPI’s interdisciplinary framework is that students whose interests don’t fit well with an existing program find the flexibility to customize a unique curriculum. In doing so, they’re free to pursue personal interests, passions and goals from a number of departments where they can learn from nationally-recognized faculty who will support their objectives.

UI3-IGPI Lessons Learned:

IGPI is a successful interdisciplinary program that is of high value to Iowa students. Since it’s oriented toward student success, its graduates are in soaring demand as is reflected in their outstanding placement rates upon graduation.

However interdisciplinary programs are under pressure under the new university business model which is more college-centric. One challenge for IGPI students, in particular, and all graduate students, in general, is ensuring access to classes that contribute to a mastery of computational domain science and AI workflows.

UI3 Director Greg Carmichael explained that departments give their own students priority registration for the courses they host. “Some reach capacity on opening day,” he said. IGPI scholars might be counseled by advisers from a number of colleges and/or departments, so the advising process requires more time. If they’re late to register, they may not be able to enroll in the courses they need to succeed. “We hope all colleges will continue to expand the curriculum to accommodate the growing number of scholars who are pursuing data-intensive academics and careers,” he said.

 Carmichael also explained that navigating the political aspects of interdisciplinary registration requires a well-informed and, at times, fierce IGPI champion. This task had been undertaken by the IGPI program officer whose position was eliminated in 2019. Otherwise, IGPI scholars benefit from having strong self-advocacy skills coupled with an understanding of how the overall registration process is managed. “But few possess that knowledge,” Carmichael added.

With the close of the campus cluster programs, how IGPI will be managed in the future is currently under discussion. For now, it is jointly-administered by UI3 and the Graduate College. Standing IGPI commitments will be honored; students will continue to benefit from the support they currently receive, and access to collaborative spaces in the CPHB will continue until alternative space is identified.

We will continue to share IGPI student news and program updates on the UI3 website until an alternative platform is created by the Graduate College.

The Proof is in the IGPI Pudding: Student Highlights

Following are four IGPI student highlights. Each chronicles a unique way that Iowa scholars have developed personalized educational experiences and the tremendous impact they’re already making.

Eric Pahl IGPI Scholar

Eric Pahl (Health Informatics PhD)

Among examples of how this structure accelerated the process of research discovery, innovation and commercialization, is the case of Eric Pahl (Health Informatics PhD Scholar who co-founded OmniLife). 

As an undergrad, Pahl had an epiphany inspired by personal experience and realized he’d need guidance from a number of disciplines to bring his ideas to fruition as he pursued an advanced degree. With IGPI, he was able to cherry-pick an interdisciplinary team of expert advisers from Iowa’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department, Tippie College of Business/Management Sciences; and UI Hospitals and Clinics. This proved to be Pahl’s recipe for rapid success.

While completing his PhD, Pahl’s innovation was already saving lives. His company now employs 20 student interns and 10 full-time professional software engineers in Johnson County; they raised more than $3 million from state, federal (National Institutes of Health), and private investments, and they’ve only just begun! Another $2 million NIH Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR Phase II) award was recently approved for funding which will make a total of $5 million raised to date. Read more about Pahl's IGPI journey. 

Luiza Superti Pantoja, IGPI Scholar

Luiza Superti Pantoja (Human-Computer Interaction PhD)

Luiza Superti Pantoja knew that when it comes to designing better technology for children, it would help to begin with an entirely fresh framework for innovation and discovery.

As a Brazilian native, Pantoja was familiar with Seymour Papert’s Samba School Learning Communities that gained inspiration from the African-Brazilian dance and drumming style. She had also spent five years working directly with preschool children to develop a better understanding of how they play, and what interests them.

Unlike the common authoritarian education model where children are required to sit still and pay attention to the teacher, Samba Schools encourage movement, creativity, and freedom of expression. It is believed that this environment fosters more empowered and enlightened adults; Pantoja is living proof that it must work. Read more about Pantoja's IGPI experience. 

Samantha Atkinson, IGPI Scholar

Samantha Atkinson (Informatics PhD)

After completing a master of science degree in biotechnology at Illinois State University, Samantha Atkinson pursued an informatics PhD at the University of Iowa. She hoped to skip the educational aspects involving mice and the dissection of biological specimens; she wanted to dive straight into the data. Therefore, an IGPI marriage of bioinformatics and computational biology was the perfect path for Atkinson whose research explores the human gut microbiome and factors relating to obesity. 

She was making great strides when after completing her second year of PhD studies, John Kirby, her adviser and the principal investigator of U-Iowa’s gut microbiome research, left to become the Chair of Microbiology and Immunology at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). Through the IGPI program, Atkinson was able to physically transfer to MCW to continue her work with Dr. Kirby while completing her IGPI Informatics degree program at U-Iowa. Read more about Atkinson's IGPI journey.

Yi Wang, IGPI Scholar

Yi Wang (Geoinformatics PhD)

The world’s 100 most polluted cities are in seven countries, and half are in China. Industrial manufacturing processes and transportation emit trace gasses, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides; pollutants which have a tremendously adverse effect on public health. Once dispersed, the levels of concentration fluctuate with atmospheric conditions.

Geoinformatics PhD Yi Wang’s thesis involved using satellite data to measure sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions, which is further applied to improve air quality forecasts. He creates emissions inventories using satellite data, which are near real-time and can therefore contribute to more timely and accurate forecasts. “For example, a parent of an asthmatic child would need to know by Monday if the coming week’s conditions warrant different childcare provisions, or if the child should stay inside all together,” he said, and added, “Such data inform health alerts that appear on the daily news, and banners on certain apps.” Read more about Yi Wang's IGPI experience.