ASU doctorate programs rate highly in report

September 30, 2010

Within the highest ratings reported for excellence in doctorate programs, more than half of Arizona State University’s programs submitted for consideration placed in the top 25 percent in the nation.

The ratings were released by the National Research Council under the National Academies of Sciences in a report that assesses research doctorate programs in the United States. The report is based on data collected in 2005 and considers the 25 programs in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and engineering ASU submitted for consideration. Download Full Image

Since 1993, when ASU’s programs were last rated, 76 percent have shown marked improvement (16 out of 21).

The highest rated programs include:

• Psychology (peer group includes the University of Washington, USC, University of Texas Austin, Michigan State, Penn State)
• Geography (peer group includes UCLA and Berkeley)
• Electrical Engineering (peer group includes USC, Carnegie Mellon, Ohio State, Johns Hopkins)
• Civil and Environmental Engineering (peer group includes California Institute of Technology, Cornell, USC, Ohio State, Duke)
• Materials Science and Engineering (peer group includes UCLA, Duke, Michigan, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Institute of Tech and Johns Hopkins)
• Chemistry (peer group includes Texas A &M, University of Maryland and Emory)
• Other programs ranked highly were history, economics and English

The NRC ratings do not give a number or point score to each academic program. Instead, they are compiled from data acquired from questionnaires sent to the universities, the doctoral programs, the faculty of these programs, and to advanced doctoral students, as well as data from the National Science Foundation, the Institute for Scientific Information and from 224 scholarly and honorary societies.

Some of the factors considered include faculty research productivity: books, scholarly publications, honors and awards; institutional support for students and completion rates; and the diversity of faculty and students, among other characteristics.

The NRC report does not include an authoritative declaration of the “best programs” in given fields, as the study committee concluded that no single such ranking could be produced in an unambiguous and rigorous way.

According to ASU Executive Vice President and Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi, “The dataset shows the complexity of evaluating academic programs, with many variables that are difficult to measure in a reliable fashion. While it is gratifying to see the great improvement in our programs since 1993, our programs have continued to improve since these data were collected in 2005. There has been a general increase in quality of our faculty and Ph.D. students that is reflected in increased student quality, graduate student support and research grants generated by faculty.”

For example, ASU sponsored project expenditures in all NCR rated programs have increased by 38 percent since the data was submitted, doctoral degrees awarded have increased from 389 to 587, and the percentage of students who are from underrepresented minority groups has increased from 14 to 18 percent.

“These objective measures show ASU's achievements in providing access to excellence in graduate education,” Capaldi said.

Maria Allison, university vice provost and dean of the Graduate College, said she is most proud of the members of the ASU faculty, who are both exceptional researchers and excellent teachers.

“ASU faculty in the top ranked programs are not only distinguished scholars but are acknowledged for outstanding work with graduate students,” Allison said. "Several have received ASU’s Outstanding Doctoral Mentor award, based on student nominations, most recently professor Leona Aiken in psychology and professor Terry Alford in engineering.”

Sharon Keeler

Chandler high school senior wins national science award

September 30, 2010

Three years ago, Scott Boisvert, an inquisitive freshman from Basha High School in Chandler, Arizona, pelted Valley scientists with e-mails in hopes of doing research in a laboratory. “You’re too young. Check back in a few years,” was the norm reply.


However, ASU scientist Elizabeth Davidson, a research professor in the School of Life Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, wasn’t deterred by Boisvert’s youth. Davidson, a veteran insect pathologist, gave him a chance. Davidson’s decision has both empowered Boisvert to shape his career path, early on, and led to national recognition for his research.  

Boisvert, now a high school senior, was honored Sept. 29 in Washington, D.C., as one of 20 Davidson Fellows. Created by the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, these national awards (not related to Elizabeth Davidson) offer scholarships to extraordinary young people under the age of 18 who display excellence in mathematics, science, literature, music, technology and philosophy. Boisvert received $10,000 and was honored at a dinner at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. The honorary hosts of the event are U.S. Senators Harry Reid of Nevada and Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Awardees include students as young as 13, and awards go up to $50,000. High School senior Scott Boisvert. Download Full Image

For Davidson, the award is simply a confirmation of what she already knew: how special and dedicated Boisvert is.

"He’s a hard, hard worker," she said. "Scott is always finding something to do and does it well." For Boisvert, the Davidson Fellowship adds to what is already a bursting quiver of local, state, national and international awards he’s received for his research in Davidson's lab. The institute will specifically recognize him for this work: a study of the “growth of the amphibian pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis in response to chemical properties of aquatic environments.”

Boisvert's scientific efforts come nearly 15 years after Davidson and others first tried to determine why amphibian populations were plummeting across the globe. Back then, recalls Davidson, a hallway conversation with James Collins, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, led Davidson and then-technician James Jancovich to study the salamander population decline in southern Arizona. Under the tutelage of Davidson and Collins, Jancovich, now a postdoctoral researcher at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, determined that what was killing salamanders, Ambystoma tigrinum, was a virus. Further work by ASU researchers and partners in Australia and the U.S, supported by two National Science Foundation grants to study emerging wildlife diseases, uncovered that viruses and Batrachochytrium were likely lead culprits of the global amphibian decline. 


Davidson has a strong history of mentorship and promotion of student’s research experiences. She has ushered 31 young researchers, including five Barrett Honors College students, toward flourishing careers in medicine, education, public health and scientific endeavor. Davidson keeps in touch with many: “I decided years ago that what really matters is not how famous you are, how many papers you publish or how much money you bring in, but how many lives you have touched.”


Boisvert is now in the midst of sending out applications to undergraduate schools; mailings that are now certain to receive notice as he pursues his desire to earn a dual master's/doctorate degree and become a physician-researcher. His research experience in the Davidson lab will serve him well in his future endeavors, he said. Besides being persistent in trying to get into labs, Boisvert has some advice for those interested in research, "you have to have motivation and find something you are interested in to get the work done." As his Davidson Fellowship Award shows, strong motivation together with great mentorship is a magical combination for success.

Written by Daniel Garry, SOLS intern

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost