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UW Tacoma removes barriers for South Sound students seeking doctorate degrees

Giant W sculpture at the University of Washington Tacoma
Ryan T. Moriarty
University of Washington
The University of Washington Tacoma has launched its first research-based doctoral program.

A new doctorate program at the University of Washington Tacoma is expanding access to graduate studies in the South Sound.

The Ph.D. in computer science and systems just launched with nine inaugural doctoral students. They will work with faculty on research and serve as teaching assistants for undergraduates and master’s students. Research will concentrate on topics including machine learning and cybersecurity.

Raj Katti, dean of UWT’s School of Engineering and Technology, says this high-level research could lead to new startups based in Tacoma.

“Part of our school’s mission is to be an economic engine for the area,” he told KNKX Public Radio. “By producing these graduates at all levels, we hope to attract companies to the area.”

That’s already happened, even before the university launched its doctorate program. Infoblox is a Tacoma-based cybersecurity company that has a track record of hiring computer science graduates from UWT. The company also funds cybersecurity research at the university. And Namatad, a Tacoma startup founded by UWT professor Matt Tolentino, has developed technology to help locate firefighters inside burning buildings. It’s been tested by Tacoma firefighters.

Raj Katti, Ph.D.
University of Washington
Raj Katti, Ph.D.

Katti says the doctorate program has potential to be an incubator for more innovation like that.

“The environment for having more startups requires a Ph.D. program,” he said. “Ph.D. students and the faculty research gets to a level where startups are feasible.”

Right now, there are more computer science jobs that require doctorate-level experience than there are available slots in Ph.D. programs. Before UWT’s program, graduate studies like it only existed at UW Seattle and Washington State University in Pullman. Several South Sound universities have doctorate programs, including Pacific Lutheran University and University of Puget Sound. But UWT’s is the first research-based program.

And Katti says that expands access to students from different backgrounds.

“Most of these students are place-bound. Due to whatever constraints they have, they cannot leave the Tacoma area,” Katti said, including attending UW Seattle. “And they never would have gone on to a Ph.D. otherwise.”

Breaking down barriers for more students to pursue doctorates means infusing more diversity into an industry that Katti says benefits from uplifting underrepresented voices.

“Their input is just invaluable,” he said. “The way people from different cultural backgrounds think is different. So they come up with new solutions that are more innovative.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.