Ten years later: How the KL2 Program at the VCU Wright Center trained a generation of research leaders

More than a decade ago, the VCU Wright Center inaugurated its first class of KL2 Scholars, a cohort of talented junior faculty members looking to advance the world’s knowledge of health through clinical and translational research.

Since then, 14 researchers have enjoyed the mentorship, protected research time and general support of their research careers that KL2 Program affords them. Funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the program will soon name its next class of interdisciplinary, community-engaged scholars from the ranks of VCU professors.

The Wright Center talked to six alumni – three still at VCU and three who have continued their careers elsewhere – about their KL2 experience and why it mattered.

How did your KL2 experience shape your career into where it is today?

Ben Van Tassell, Pharm.D.My research now goes all the way back to the KL2 days: looking at the role of inflammation in heart failure. The pilot studies led to larger and larger NIH grants. Making that transition from theory into actual practice – that’s what the KL2 process was all about. The program opened doors. There’s a difference between looking somebody up in a directory and saying, ‘Hey, can I come and chat with you?’ versus somebody at the Wright Center reaching out and connecting you with an introduction. You’ve got the weight of the institution behind you.

Leticia Moczygemba, Pharm.D., Ph.D.The research supported by my KL2 award laid the foundation for my work today – related to developing and implementing health interventions for people experiencing homelessness. Because I do community-engaged work, I had a lot of established relationships at VCU and the surrounding Richmond community. When I joined the University of Texas, I had to build my partnerships and establish my research program again. To do this, I relied on the training I received as part of my KL2 award. My expertise in community-engaged research is a skillset I developed through the award and because of VCU’s strong presence with community partners.

Carlos Villalba-Galea, Ph.D.: My work as a KL2 fellow allowed me to build the foundation for my current research program as a faculty. When I was in KL2, my lab made discoveries that have clinical relevance, and my current lab continues to study the molecular underpinning of the phenomenon we discovered. The experience was essential to becoming an independent researcher. It’s how I learned to design and execute an independent research program.

April Kimmel, Ph.D.: The KL2 opened the door for domestic research for me. I came here having done a lot of international work related to HIV, and I was trying to find my footing at VCU. When you’re a new faculty member, you’re trying to network, you’re trying to establish collaborations. The Wright Center and the KL2 facilitated collaborations, mentoring support and professional development that collectively put me on a trajectory toward independence as an investigator. I connected with mentors and colleagues that I otherwise would not have met so early in my time at VCU.

Sarah Kye Price, Ph.D.: Immediately following my KL2, I had a four-year funded research project which was translational in nature, and that work was instrumental in shifting maternal and child health practice and policy in Virginia. Aspects of that work continue to be implemented in statewide policy and practice, and I continue to support that work and remain in conversation with community partners who were actively engaged in that process.

Sinem Esra Sahingur, D.D.S., M.S., Ph.D.: The Wright Center was instrumental for my career. It’s hard to be a clinician-scientist. You have clinical responsibilities, and you’re competing with all those researchers for grants. So the Wright Center and the KL2 award really gave me protected time to concentrate on my research and most of all introduced me to a lot of extraordinary people with whom I developed long-lasting friendships.

Why is protected research time so important for a young researcher?

Sahingur: It’s so vital. Research requires a lot of reading and planning and being up-to-date. Those of us in the clinical departments, we need to spend time both in clinical and didactic teaching. Especially during our junior years, when we don’t have funding, laboratory personnel, there is so much pressure to be able to establish yourself as an independent researcher and clinician. We just need time to keep up with all these demands to be successful.

Also, when it comes to family life, it’s not like you can be at work until midnight. I’ve always had to leave by 5:45 p.m. because daycare would close at 6. So dedicated research time is important to be able to keep up with your family responsibilities as well.

Van Tassell: One of the keys to the KL2 process is that it’s essentially jumping in with both feet. That 75% protected time for research gives you the chance to focus on projects and really figure out what you want to be doing as an investigator. As a translational researcher, you always feel like you’re straddling the fence between two worlds. You could spend 100% of your time just being a clinician and never finish all the work. You could spend 100% of your time just being a researcher and never finish all the work.

Protected time means you’re free to really marinate in the research space. It protects you from getting overwhelmed with clinical duties or teaching duties. It helps you find that critical area of overlap between disciplines where you can actually do translational research.

Villalba-Galea: Protected time alleviates the pressure imposed by the heavy responsibilities inherent to a junior faculty position. Transitioning from a postdoctoral to a faculty can be overwhelming, and protected time constitutes a clever and simple solution that effectively addresses this concern.

What about the mentorship experience was important?

Kimmel: I saw what a mentor could be and what a mentor should be. [Wright Center leader] Alex Krist was a primary mentor for me. He’s amazing. He was dedicated, thoughtful, encouraging and kind. He understood the challenges of work-life balance. And he thinks outside the box. His entire way of working with junior faculty is what I aspire to do as a mentor now.

Villalba-Galea: Having a mentor was an essential part of developing a research program. From generating novel ideas, to performing those seemingly unimportant tasks like organizing your daily activities in an efficient manner, mentors were key figures that facilitated the process of consolidating my research program.

Moczygemba: The mentorship coupled with protected time is really what was invaluable about the KL2 program. I can’t say enough good things about the mentors in this program and how important they are in keeping you on track, helping you understand the ins and outs of the federal grant process, helping to identify what kind of preliminary data you have to have and, generally, what it takes to be successful.

My two mentors had built their own research programs that were similar to what I was doing. Community-based work has so many challenges, and the message from both of my mentors was perseverance and sticking with it through the difficulties. That still echoes for me today.

Price: The mentoring element of the program was really significant to me. I came in knowing only my social work mentors and was introduced to a wide range of mentors within the School of Medicine and around the university who really helped shape my interdisciplinarity. I was paired at one point with the then-dean of the school, and I remember being terrified of that initial meeting with him. Then I realized as we were talking how much that he had to offer in advice, connections and support. It demystified the faculty-administration divide, and I’m actively living that now that I myself am in an administrative position. Mentoring is one of the most important things that I do.

Looking back on your time as a VCU KL2 Scholar, what stands out to you as memorable?

Van Tassell: It sounds a little contrived, but I can point to a very specific moment in time, a meeting, where a comment led to years of funding for my research. A KL2 adviser said, ‘The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute just opened up this grant mechanism called an R34. I think your project is perfectly positioned for an R34.’ I had no idea what she was talking about. I had to go home and look it up. And it was this brand new mechanism that I wouldn’t have known about. My second application for an R34 was funded, and we were able to follow it up with two additional R34s. All of which were developed during the KL2 period.

Villalba-Galea: I truly enjoyed being part of a group of talented scientists, rapidly becoming independent faculty. The all-around diversity of the group made the KL2 into an invaluable, memorable experience.

Sahingur: I always felt very connected to others. Interactions were very natural. There was a project, a request for applications, where I engaged people who didn’t know each other at the Nursing School, the Medical School and the Dental School, and we came up with a grant proposal within two months. They opened their labs, shared materials. It was fun. We then continued to collaborate in other projects and published together.

Price: Hearing research discussed and described by those from other disciplines, like my KL2 colleagues, really shaped my ability to engage with interdisciplinary partners – and consider ways to collaborate in creative ways. My work became increasingly transdisciplinary following the KL2. While I still have my own primary research interests, I realized that my work and skills also expand upon and support the work of others, and the KL2 gave me the skills and confidence to forge multiple collaborations.

What was valuable about the connection between the VCU Wright Center and the NIH and NCATS that your KL2 scholarship afforded?

Van Tassell: The connections are valuable in knowing that the institutions are behind you, that the institutions care, and that you’ve got really bright, intelligent, successful people trying to help you troubleshoot and make connections and knock down barriers and open doors. It’s incredible.

Kimmel: The KL2 set me on a path to have a track record for independent investigator-initiated grants at the NIH. The gold standard is the NIH R01. The KL2 offered protected time to pursue my research agenda and without that time, I wouldn’t have been awarded my first R01. Without the R01, I likely wouldn’t have been awarded a subsequent NIH/CDC award. The successes have built on each other, and the KL2 laid the foundation for that success.

There were quite high expectations of us as NIH-funded KL2 scholars. The expectations felt unachievable – except that then I achieved them. There were stressful times, but I also felt very supported as a human being from everyone involved in the program and at the Wright Center. Collectively, this support taught me how to thrive in an environment where the work never ends.

Moczygemba: You kind of get a look behind the curtain. I attended many of the workshops and speakers brought to the Wright Center with expertise in NIH-funded research. There would be people on panels talking about their experience being a federally funded researcher, and hearing those candid conversations as a junior faculty member is really helpful – understanding their path to success.

Success takes multiple tries. And what I learned about that process is definitely still with me today. It helped me to hit the ground running at a new institution because I had the knowledge and skills I needed to navigate these things. I really had a good foundation to grow upon.

Meet the Alumni

April Kimmel is an associate professor in the VCU Department of Health Behavior and Policy. Her work centers on the effective and efficient approaches to reduce structural barriers to accessing care for infectious diseases and primarily HIV, both domestically and internationally.

Leticia Moczygemba is an associate professor at the University of Texas College of Pharmacy in the Division of Health Outcomes as well as the associate director of the Texas Center for Health Outcomes, Research & Education. She researches emerging care models that engage pharmacists, as well as care coordination for homeless individuals by implementing and testing mobile health technology.

Sarah Kye Price is the associate dean for faculty development and a professor in the School of Social Work at VCU. In addition to her leadership role, she studies health and mental health promotion for women during and around the time of pregnancy.

Sinem Esra Sahingur is the associate dean of graduate studies and student research at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Dental Medicine. Her research investigates the immune and inflammatory pathways in periodontal diseases. She recently finished a prestigious fellowship program, Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine ELAM by Drexel University.

Ben Van Tassell is a professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy in the Department Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science. He researches new opportunities for drug treatment in patients with heart disease, at the convergence point of preclinical and clinical investigators, with a special focus on the role of inflammation in heart failure.

Carlos Villalba-Galea works at the University of the Pacific as assistant professor (soon to be associate professor) in the School of Pharmacy. He studies fundamental molecular mechanisms regulating electrical excitability in neurons, the heart and smooth muscles. He focuses on Kv7 potassium channels.

Learn more about the KL2 Program at the Wright Center.

photos of alumni interviewed
Six KL2 Program alumni spoke to the VCU Wright Center about their experience. Clockwise from top left: April Kimmel, Ph.D., Leticia Moczygemba, Pharm.D., Ph.D., Sarah Price, Ph.D., Carlos Villalba-Galea, Ph.D., Ben Van Tassell, Pharm.D., and Sinem Esra Sahingur, Ph.D., DDS.

 

CTSA Program In Action Goals
Goal 1: Train and Cultivate the Translational Science Workforce