(with apologies to Jefferson Airplane) Surrealistic Conference

By: Sanae ElShourbagy Ferreira, Ph.D., NCATS Health Specialist, Division of Clinical Innovation; Erica Rosemond, Ph.D., NCATS Acting Deputy Director of the Division of Clinical Innovation; Michael Kurilla, M.D., Ph.D., NCATS Director of the Division of Clinical Innovation

After over two years of remote work with virtually everything virtual, NIH has embarked on ‘return to work’ (at least 1 day per week), and ACTS’ first in-person meeting at Chicago’s McCormick Place is now in the books. Encompassing 2.6 million total square feet including 600,000 square feet of meeting rooms, it is the largest convention center in North America. Needless to say, with all that space, social distancing could be taken to ‘professional’ distancing if desired Mentally, the transition from 2D to 3D interactions did present some challenges (facial recognition was delayed) with an occasional reflex to reach to turn off my own ‘camera.’ Yet, attendees still seemed to successfully navigate a new normal together, finally presented with an opportunity to meet in real life.

A few noteworthy sessions from the main ACTS meeting come to mind. ACTS recognized outstanding accomplishments in translational research – among them, TL1 Trainees Afaf Saliba and Tara Bautista, who received ACTS Outstanding Trainee awards! In one session, Translational Science and Community Health: Impact and Implications, Elizabeth Cohn provided an update on the 3rd edition revision of the Principles of Community Engagement where there have been nearly 10 million downloads (in English and Spanish ) in 170 countries since the inception of the first edition. The introduction was then followed by case studies putting the community engagement principles into action by Tabia Akintobi, Muredach Reilly and Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola which emphasized the need for bi-directional communication, working with your institution’s leadership to effect action and impact, and listening to the experts and community partners. Another session, Four Collaborations among the Three Chicagoland CTSA Hubs, demonstrated the impact of innovative science communication strategies and the strength of combining efforts amongst hubs in engaging communities in clinical trials. Sara Serritella, Director of Communications for the Institute for Translational Medicine at the University of Chicago, introduced The New Normal campaign inclusive of dogs partnering with their “hoomans” (Save Da Hoomans) to raise awareness of health research activities. My only question to this approach was “What about the cats?” Cat lovers need not worry – we learned that cats will soon be able to join their canine counterparts in their mission to save their “hoomans” as well.

Following ACTS, the CTSA program used the venue for consortium-wide group meetings. While it was impossible to partake in all the CTSA related activities, the video presentations by TL1 and KL2 scholars were particularly noteworthy during the Workforce EC. It may turn out that an unintended consequence of all this ‘zooming’ has allowed investigators, especially more junior, to see themselves recorded (yes, I know, everyone’s own voice sounds weird to them) and hone their overall oral presentation skills from this type of feedback. With regards to the Community Engagement EC, CTSA investigators have played a central role in many of the efforts to engage in research with communities, building trust, and garnering interest of the National Academies and which is also satisfying from a programmatic standpoint. Lastly, a meeting with a subset of the ACTS Board afforded an opportunity to initiate what we hope will be greater engagement of the CTSA Program with ACTS in the future.

The CTSA Steering Committee (SC) met for an extended session covering a variety of topics. Highlights includes a free-wheeling discussion following a superb analysis by evaluators Cathleen Kane and Deborah DiazGranados on the various Working Groups (WG) over the past several years. The SC was interested in assessing the relevancy of topics undertaken, their outputs, along with the SC process for establishing and overseeing WG. This discussion will continue, and we expect to have the analysis presented at an upcoming Program Webinar. Another topic was the disposition of the DEI Taskforce. SC taskforces are established with a specific charge for a finite amount of time. Options included sunsetting the effort, giving them more time, conversion to a WG, or conversion to an Enterprise Committee. There was broad agreement that the work of this group is fundamental to the CTSA Program and importantly, that this is something we should be ‘doing’ as opposed to something we simply ‘do’ and then move on. As such, there was consensus that the DEI Taskforce convert to an EC, joining the other four ECs. More details on their efforts will be part of an upcoming Program Webinar. Our final topic was a brainstorming session for the Fall Program meeting to give the planning committee, led by incoming SC co-chair Duane Mitchell, some ideas; more are always welcome.

All I ask is … ponder with open minds. We’ve made so many mistakes, humanity, during just one lifetime. Many of them perpetrated not by evildoers, drenched in malice, but by men and women filled with fine motives! Like you.
― David Brin, Existence

This Mike’s Blog was featured in May 2022’s Ansible. Read other full-length stories from the May 2022 Ansible.