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Critical Class

The R3 Graduate Science Initiative dives into high-stakes questions.

By Kate Harrison Belz

In early January, Gundula Bosch, PhD, MEd, began to worry. 

She was co-teaching a new course called “How Do We Know What Is True?: Theory and Practice of Science.” Would the content be too dry, too intangible for students? 

Short answer: No. 

Students lingered on the course’s online forums late into the night, discussing, debating and composing impassioned essays.

“The sessions went off like rockets,” says Bosch, director of the R3 program. “The discussions went under the skin.”

The enthusiastic response to the pilot class of the Bloomberg School’s interdepartmental R3 Graduate Science Initiative is an affirmation for the program’s founder (and Bosch’s co-instructor) Arturo Casadevall, MD, PhD, chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.  Casadevall conceived the R3 program as a response to highly specialized doctoral science programs. Students emerge with valuable research know-how, but are often unable

“Our hope is to encourage critical thinking,” says Casadevall. “Current graduate programs are great at teaching students to do deep work, but these don’t always provide the tools for developing thought and rigor.”

The three Rs—“Rigor, Reproducibility, and Responsibility”—are essential for shaping better scientists committed to best practices and driven by social responsibility, he says.

The R3 program highlights the essential yet high-stakes questions “at the heart and soul” of research, says Bosch: What is science? Why and how should we do it responsibly? How do core ethical principles apply to complex issues—like customizing genetics, or containing epidemics? Through such questions, R3 initiative leaders hope to reignite the passion that drew students to science. The questions never have simple answers. The goal, says Bosch, is to better equip students to wrestle through them.

The approach has resonated. Though R3 courses are currently electives, students from a wide range of departments have filled them. Soon, Bosch and Casadevall hope, R3 will be a standard part of a Bloomberg School education.