Najla Mouchrek is unique on Virginia Tech's campuses. 

The graduate student from Brazil in the university’s Human Centered Design Program is the university’s first individual interdisciplinary Ph.D. student. Her degree proposal – Design for Youth Empowerment: Collaborative practices for building capacities for the transition to adulthood – spans at least four disciplines.

Mouchrek said the early ideas that led to her proposal came from her work with young people when she was studying for her master’s degree in design. She explored how design could engage youths around sustainability efforts. She said the young people with whom she worked were interested in sustainability, but felt they did not have enough power and voice to change the status quo. She felt design could help solve that problem.

“I’m concerned about how they will build a meaningful life,” she said, adding that her two teenage daughters inspire her work. “This is my personal spark. How can every one of them find meaningful pathways or create their own?”

Mouchrek said she came to Blacksburg because her husband was studying for a Ph.D. here. She discovered the Human Centered Design Program and was attracted to its focus on design innovation and sustainability. “It was in line with what I wanted to do,” she said. But the interdisciplinary program does not offer a Ph.D. So she began exploring the prospect of creating her own degree program.

The Virginia Tech Graduate School offers the interdisciplinary Ph.D. for students whose goals cannot be met by a single discipline from a degree granting academic unit at the university, according to the Graduate Catalog.

“Real world problems don’t fit nicely into boxes, specific fields, departments or programs,” said Graduate School Associate Dean and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Amy Pruden, who oversees the program. “We need to have the opportunity for students so inclined to tackle these problems.”

Mark Benson, associate professor of human development and chair of Mouchrek’s committee, called her, “the ideal first student in the interdisciplinary doctoral program because of her creativity and flexibility.”

She needed both qualities to build her proposal. Pruden said students have to show how their proposed project does not fit into any one field. The student’s advisory committee also must include members from at least two disciplinary fields. Mouchrek’s committee members are from five.

Pruden said unlike doctoral students who are admitted into degree-granting units, those seeking an interdisciplinary Ph.D. must submit their proposals to the Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies for approval. Those proposals must include their proposed research focus, goals, plan of study, coursework, a planned schedule for exams and research, and the applicant’s advisory committee members.

Mouchrek said the process was difficult, but she approached it step by step. "It was very experimental. I think it was good I didn’t know all the planning before. I had to sell the idea as I built it.” She said she knocked on doors and assembled her committee, one by one. Committee members include Benson, Co-chair Liesl Baum, senior fellow at the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology; Timothy Baird, assistant professor of geography; Meaghan Dee, assistant professor of practice in the School of Visual Arts; and Jill Sible, professor of biological sciences and assistant provost for undergraduate education. Mouchrek said Sible helped her secure a graduate assistantship, which enabled her to pursue her degree.

Once she had her committee lined up, she worked with them in spring and summer 2015 to build her proposal. “I was really worried about the rigor,” she said. 

Pruden said one of the challenges of the interdisciplinary Ph.D. is to have both breadth and depth. That means having sufficient depth in two or more fields,” she added.

But Baum said Mouchrek met that challenge and clearly demonstrated that her proposal broke new ground.

“Najla took a risk in this process of exploring the individualized interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in that she confidently explored a space that was not clearly defined,” Baum said. “She had to rely on her internal motivation to push beyond the boundaries that exist in our current educational structure.”

Mouchrek praised the university and the Graduate School for accepting her proposal. “It’s the first time an institution has really seen what I want to do,” she said. It really aligns with the university values. It’s not only a theoretical study, it is a practical study. We’ll have to work with many young people to do this.”

Virginia Tech joins the ranks of such institutions as the Marquette, Tufts, Boston and Washington State universities in offering the individualized degree program. Vice President and Dean for Graduate Education Karen P. DePauw managed Washington State’s program when she was associate dean there.

In November, a second interdisciplinary Ph.D.  proposal was approved, this one from Navid Baradaranfallahkheir, of Alexandria, Virginia, who will study “Supporting Spatial Critique through Crowdsourcing and Immersive Technologies.” Pruden said other students are working on proposals, as well.

 “We’re looking to grow new leaders,” said Pruden.

Benson believes Mouchrek fits that description: “Najla’s in-depth proposal will be a valuable template and scholarly example for future students.”