Insights to Inspire: Catapulting the Careers of Future Translational Scientists

Insights to Inspire: Catapulting the Careers of Future Translational Scientists

Investing in the next generation is critically important in any industry, but it’s a particular focus within the field of translational science. The Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program helps train, cultivate and sustain future leaders of the biomedical research workforce through TL1 Clinical Research Training Awards and KL2 Mentored Clinical Research Scholar Awards.

In 2019, the Common Metrics Initiative released a Multi-Year Report that identifies the hubs with the most improvement in each of the three Common Metrics for 2016-2017. The hubs that saw the greatest improvement in their careers metric shared their strategies to strengthen their TL1 and KL2 award programs. A selection of their insights are outlined below to help other hubs improve their own approach to clinical research training.

  1. Strategic selection of scholars

Children’s Research Institute’s CTSA Program hub attributes much of the success of their KL2 program to their selection of awardees. “We have a very in-depth review process for applications, said Naomi L.C. Luban, M.D., vice chair of Academic Affairs, Children’s National Hospital, Children’s Research Institute and GWU School of Medicine. “Scholars submit letters of intent, which we review for quality, ingenuity and feasibility. Next, we narrow our field of applicants down to a list of potential scholars who must complete an NIH quality submission followed by an NIH simulated review, which we use to finalize our selection.” In addition to Children’s Research Institute’s careful review of the applicant and mentor team, they are also mindful of topics. The hub has found that when scholars demonstrate a personal devotion to their topic or when their topic has a particular timeliness to current scientific innovation, scholars have more success completing their project and translating it into continuing research.

  1. Regular mentorship check-ins

TL1 and KL2 awards are relatively short in timeframe. There is no buffer that would factor in any significant delays or missteps, so it is crucial that scholars have a support system to help them set goals, develop timelines and designate benchmarks to ensure they stay on schedule.

Boston University’s CTSA Program hub launched two mentorship programs to help its KL2 scholars set and reach their goals. Their new semester-long career grant writing program helps scholars hone their grant writing skills. The workshops are guided by two senior faculty members that advise scholars on best practices, areas of potential concern and room for improvement with their grants. “Of the first two cohorts from this program, 100% have received K awards or career development awards from foundations allowing them to continue their work in translational science,” said David Felson, M.D., M.P.H., professor of Medicine and associate director of Boston University CTSI for Training and Education.

Boston University also launched another grant writing workshop, called the PRIME Program, for scholars working towards R01 or scientific grants. These workshops are held regularly and staffed by two senior faculty members who advise scholars throughout the process of writing and pursuing grants. “Of the 13 KL2 scholars that we had when these programs started,” said Felson, “11 have their own grants. Three of them now have R01s as principal investigators.”

University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) Galveston also identifies mentorship as one of the key determinants of their TL1 program’s success. “We have made it a priority to ensure that the mentor is comfortable challenging the goals of the mentee,” said Mark Hellmich, Ph.D., professor of Surgery and Physiology & Biophysics, UTMB. “It can often be difficult for mentors to raise red flags but given the short time frame of these grants, the ability to quickly raise issues and find strategies for addressing them can make or break a project.”

  1. Prioritize diversity and inclusion

As Laura Nicholson, M.D., Ph.D., at Scripps Research Translational Institute points out, investing in scholars from underrepresented groups not only improves a hub’s Careers Common Metric, it also benefits the scientific research community as a whole. “Beyond simply being the right thing to do, having diverse populations involved in scientific research improves every part of the research we conduct and the education we deliver,” said Nicholson. “Scripps Research’s Director of Graduate Studies, Dr. Dawn Eastmond, forged relationships and recruited to create and increase the atmosphere of diversity and inclusion that benefits all our institutional goals.”

The Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) CTSA hub, the South Carolina Clinical & Translational Research Institute (SCTR), has seen particularly positive results to its TL1 program from its focus on diversity and inclusion. “We are fortunate that MUSC has made a commitment to diversity and inclusion institution-wide,” said Diana Lee-Chavarria, Education & Workforce Development Program Manager at SCTR. “Because of that commitment, we have been able to build cross-departmental connections with our diversity and inclusion office, who we partner with to maximize promotional and outreach efforts.” By partnering with their diversity and inclusion office, SCTR was able to reach a larger, more comprehensive audience of potential scholars.

  1. Encourage an institutional commitment to research

Children’s Research Institute also attributes the positive changes it saw in its KL2 program to the institution’s increased commitment to research as a whole. In recent years, Children’s Research Institute has made a concerted effort to hire more department heads with a focus on academia and research. “By having our faculty lead by example with their commitment to research, we were able to create an environment where 75% protected time was attainable and easy to enforce,” said Luban. “This recruitment strategy was institution wide, creating a broader base of individuals across the organization that had a clear commitment to clinical and translational research. This equates to more individuals for scholars to learn from, work with and look up to.”

The future of translational science will be shaped by the steps we take now to support young and developing scientists starting out in the field. By funding the right scholars and implementing creative strategies to support them in their early research, CTSA Program hubs are investing in the field and paving the way for interventions that will improve the health of individuals and the public.