The Hematologist

March-April 2012, Volume 9, Issue 2

Breaking into the Translational Research Arena: How to Develop a Sense for "the Other Side"

Stephan Lindsey, PhD
Craig Eckfeldt, MD, PhD

Published on: March 01, 2012

1NIH National Research Services Award Postdoctoral Scholar, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Delaware

2Fellow, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Transplantation, University of Minnesota Medical School

Most biomedical researchers understand the importance of developing translational research plans, but how to accomplish this goal requires thoughtful planning. A “translational” approach to biomedical research requires the ability to integrate relevant research questions with a clinical problem. Initiating planning early in one’s career (i.e., during postdoctoral or medical training) is an essential component for developing a successful career strategy. While clinical and graduate training provide a solid foundation for MDs and PhDs respectively, challenges remain for trainees (and beyond) who wish to develop a sense for “the other side.” One approach to overcome these challenges is to pursue combined research and clinical training in a dual-track program, such as those offered in the well-established NIH-sponsored Medical Scientist Training Programs for MD/PhD degrees or to enroll in one of the newer translational PhD training programs, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-sponsored “Med into Grad” program. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of integrating basic research and clinical medicine is to join together basic researchers with clinical investigators to develop collaborative translational projects; all of these training programs foster enhanced communication between PhD- and MD-trained investigators.

The NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program has made effective and efficient translational research a top priority at the national level and is one example of how NIH funding decisions are steering academic research in a translational direction. As a result of these investments, most trainees need not look beyond their own institutions to explore the interface between basic research and clinical medicine. Departmental and Divisional grand rounds, institutional seminar series, and journal clubs are all important venues at which laboratory researchers, clinical researchers, and clinicians can meet regularly to establish local collaborations to fuel translational research. Trainees should take advantage of these and other interdisciplinary seminars as opportunities for exploring translational research questions and potential collaborations.

While training programs are developing formal programs to bring together investigators to facilitate a “bench-to-bedside” research strategy, trainees should take a proactive role in creating their own translational career niche. Doing so requires developing connections across the lab/clinic divide. One of the most effective strategies to accomplish this aim is to network early and often, taking advantage of common research interests as a starting point. As a trainee’s research progresses, he or she should seek opportunities to present his or her work whenever possible. Presentations at national and regional meetings, such as the ASH annual meeting, provide an opportunity not only to showcase one’s research but also to test new hypotheses. In these settings, hypotheses can be presented and discussed with potential collaborators through both formal presentations and “curbside” discussions.

Similarly, trainees should aim to interact with visiting scientists at their home institutions, remembering to act not just as a student, but as a colleague who wants to explore a deeper understanding of the science presented. By actively participating in the discussion during research seminars, trainees can demonstrate to colleagues and mentors that they are engaged in the scientific process. Demonstrating such interest may lead to additional opportunities to engage expert speakers on a more formal level. While it can be intimidating as a trainee to take this type of initiative, it is important to recognize that senior researchers generally take great pleasure in engaging with early-career colleagues. The goal of these interactions is not to provide expert advice to senior investigators but to build a supporting framework from which a successful career can grow. Not every endeavor will bear collaborative fruit, but venturing across the lab/clinical divide through networking is an important step toward reaching the goal of a productive translational research career.

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