Future signaled in combined PhD candidacy

Jacqueline Kueper poses with arms folded and smile on her face

Special to Western NewsJacqueline Kueper, MSC’17, is pursuing a doctorate in Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Computer Science – the first Western student to study two different fields for one PhD.

Jacqueline Kueper, MSC’17, did not intend to be a pioneer. But the more she thought about the possibilities, the more she realized becoming Western’s first combined PhD candidate made sense.

“I’m interested in what happens when we start to generate research questions, not from the point of view of one discipline, but from more than one,” she said. “I want to go one step deeper and contribute to both fields in new ways.

“There is value in having people who are bridges, who understand more than one field, who can help connect specialists in one sphere with ones in another.”

Currently, Kueper is pursuing a doctorate in Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Computer Science – the first Western student to study two different fields for one PhD.

For years, Western has offered students the opportunity to combine a doctorate with various professional master’s programs or complete a dual PhD degree in a single discipline in partnership with international universities.

Combined PhD studies across disciplines, however, is a new concept emerging in response to the increasing number of complex, cross-disciplinary challenges.

“While Western is a leader in creating interdisciplinary graduate programs, the rapid rise in increasingly complex challenges requires us to rethink our approach to interdisciplinary graduate education in an effort to enable more flexible and diverse opportunities,” said Linda Miller, Vice-Provost (Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies).

In her research, Kueper explores predictive health informatics – meaning she analyzes health records data from primary-care practices to help doctors improve medical care and decision-making with their patients. Her work weaves the complexity of biostatistical analysis with computer science modeling and analysis.

When exploring universities where she might do this combined work, she found the field surprisingly thin. That’s when Kueper approached Miller. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is a crazy idea, but I just want to see if it will be possible.’ Much to my delight, Linda responded quite favorably.”

In fact, Miller had already begun discussions with some programs about how to create a combined PhD when Kueper contacted her.

“Jacqueline’s research interest highlights the advantage of bringing the knowledge and methods of two disciplines together to address an issue that can’t be fully addressed by either discipline in isolation,” Miller said. “The timing of her inquiry was ideal. She and her supervisors provided us with the perfect opportunity to pilot a combined PhD model.”

Kueper had the support of department chairs and her supervisor Dan Lizotte, a professor cross-appointed in Epidemiology & Biostatistics in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry and Computer Science in the Faculty of Science.

Lizotte said a combined doctorate involves more than bobbing on the surface of two disciplines. It entails being accepted, customizing a plan of study, and completing a core research component, competency exam and coursework – all for two programs.

“There may be one thesis, but you’re meeting requirements set out by two departments,” Kueper said.

The idea of working in a single discipline has mostly been tradition-bound, said Lizotte, who heads the Predictive Health Informatics Lab at Western. But more people are finding opportunities to do research across disciplines and faculties to the benefit of all.

Because Western faculty members have become more accustomed to working together, Lizotte noted, it became easier to approve a combined program for Kueper.

“Western is a real leader in this area. It’s not strange or abnormal to be appointed in more than one department at Western. And it’s not just a courtesy cross-appointment kind of thing where maybe you supervise students every once in a while. You actually have two departments who have a stake in your research agenda,” Lizotte said.

Supervising the work also requires more than the usual commitment to collaboration.

“To work across disciplines in a deep way requires extra effort. But that effort is worth it,” he said.

While Kueper may be the first, Miller said she won’t be the last.

“This model is ideal for students whose research interests are focused on complex challenges that require knowledge and training in two disciplines,” Miller said. “I’m optimistic her experience will enable us to formalize a process and to expand this opportunity.”