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Harvard’s PhD Program in Biological Sciences in Public Health turns to the Web to attract students

The problem: Attracting the stellar candidate to a highly specialized degree program

"We live in our minds; we deal with the intellectual. It’s the world we inhabit." This is the life of a research scientist at a world-renowned university, and therefore it is Bruce Demple’s life. Those are his words. Demple is Professor of Toxicology and Acting Chair of the Department of Cancer Cell Biology at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, and along with his duties as a research scientist and teacher he found himself heading up a committee to recruit students who might want to live in his world. The committee was responsible for recruiting prospects for the PhD program in Harvard’s Biological Sciences in Public Health, or BPH, for short. To reach their goal, the committee hired Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology, two businesses that have joined forces to supply forward-thinking clients like BPH with robust, navigable, database-driven Web sites. The new site (https://cfserver.hsph.harvard.edu/cfdocs/bph/) is lively and functional, and is now useful not only to applicants, but also researchers at other universities.

Situation analysis: Even Harvard can’t rest on its laurels

One might suppose that Harvard University would have very little trouble attracting a student of superior intellect and talent, and that these students would search out Harvard, and not the other way around. That is correct…to a point. "We could sit back and do nothing," said Demple. "But, there is competition." Similar programs at other prestigious schools such as Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Yale, Washington, and Michigan vie for the same students. And interestingly enough, BPH also competes with the dozens of other graduate programs at Harvard.

"Our sense was there were students in other programs at Harvard who should have applied to our program," explained Dr. Eric Rubin, Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and a member of the recruiting committee. "We’re not fighting for market share. There is a particular kind of student interested in what we do." BPH’s program is geared to the scientist interested in the problems that affect large populations.

"We’ve always had outstanding applicants," said Dr. Joseph Mizgerd, Assistant Professor of Physiology and Cell Biology and a third member of the committee. "But, we always want to strive to get a better applicant, and also ensure that someone looking for our kind of program knows about us."

BPH’s recruiting committee examined the problem of attracting students and came to a few conclusions and observations. Brochures, while impressive, were expensive and had a limited shelf life. Students came from all over the world, so BPH needed to reach out globally to them. To say students are computer literate is an understatement, and they tend to turn to the Web as their first source of information. BPH’s Web site was woefully outdated and unimpressive, and didn’t reflect the program or life at Harvard accurately.

The answer: Redesign BPH’s Web site from the ground up

"We didn’t start out as a Web committee, but quickly realized that the Web was the way students found out about us," explained Demple. What BPH realized, and what so many other organizations are realizing, is that just about all roads today lead to the Web. But a Web site, in itself, isn’t the answer. The Web is a tool, albeit a highly complicated and sophisticated tool, and like all tools needs to be used correctly. A poorly designed or functionally inferior site is worse than no site at all. Whoever the recruitment committee ultimately chose would need to not only understand the nuances of Web design, but also be able to put them into practice.

Demple and his committee considered their possibilities including building the site themselves. They met with several vendors who could build a new site including groups from within Harvard. But Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology clearly came out ahead of the competition.

"We felt they would do the best job for us because, out of all of the other vendors, Studio 180 and Blue Note seemed to understand what we were trying to accomplish and be attuned to what we needed," said Rubin.

A single force: Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology

While operating as separate firms, Studio 180 and Blue Note Technology have developed a cooperative and noncompetitive partnership whereby each organization delivers its particular expertise to a project. Studio 180’s skill lies in graphic and Web design, and information architecture, and it acts as the client liaison and also designs the site’s branding, user interface, and navigation. Blue Note Technology concentrates on the site’s back end, with Blue Note’s content management application anchoring all of the functionality related to delivering content to the user.

In working over the years on other successful Web projects, Studio 180 and Blue Note have mastered the art of presenting themselves as a single force. "One thing that impressed me was the trouble they went to to meet our needs. They were very accommodating, and never tried to talk us out of anything or say something was impossible," said Demple.

Demple was impressed that Studio 180 had done its homework, arriving at the initial meetings with sketches and outlines showing the framework for the placement of images and text boxes of proposed Web pages. "And Blue Note clearly had a much more flexible system that allows us to update the site ourselves," said Demple. "We didn’t want to have to rely on a Webmaster or some other technical person, and their system gave us just the right amount of options. It wasn’t too complicated, nor was it too simple."

Blue Note’s content management application is so powerful, yet easy to use, that adding a page to the site is as easy as opening a new Word document. The need to rapidly update the site isn’t just a matter of convenience. Research being done at the school is at the cutting-edge of science, and public health problems and issues can change or arise with lightning speed and frequency. For example, bioterrorism is a topic that suddenly appeared in our daily headlines, and research being done at Harvard could affect national safety. But, unlike the gravity of the topic, posting and linking information on the site is still as easy as opening and manipulating a Word document. As it should be.

An observation: Well-designed sites tend to cross boundaries

Web sites tend to cross over boundaries, and BPH’s site, initially built to recruit students, also has grown to be of interest to other researchers both at Harvard and other universities around the world. Disease and ways to alleviate it are what drives the department, and research in one area tends to affect research in other areas. The site’s data-driven architecture and user-friendly organization makes posting and accessing information disarmingly simple.

BPH’s new site represents a giant step forward over its previous site. "It’s very professional-looking," said Rubin. "We searched the Web for similar sites, and none looked like ours nor delivered the depth of information that the new site does. It represents our program nicely."