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Can Your Basic Research Contribute to Cures?

If you are a basic scientist, you probably work in a setting that is far away from the clinic — literally and figuratively. Yet some of your research could benefit patients. The challenges are recognizing that potential and translating it into something that can be used by medical doctors, device and pharmaceutical companies, or patients. 
To address these challenges, Science Careers teamed up with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) for a workshop called “Can Your Basic Research Contribute to Cures? Translational Research for Ph.D.s.” Organized by Science Careers Editor Jim Austin, the workshop was held in Washington D.C. last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes Science and Science Careers). The session was chaired by Kate Travis, Editor of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network, an online career development community within Science Careers. 
On the panel were three early-career and established translational scientists: Sridevi Sarma, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Computational Medicine (ICM) in 
Baltimore, Maryland, who uses her engineering background to develop computer models of deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease; Kasey Vickers, a biomedical scientist currently studying the mechanisms underlying atherosclerosis as a postdoc at the  National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) in Bethesda, Maryland; and Laura Richman, a former veterinary pathologist whose current job as vice president for research and development for translational sciences at biotech company MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is to coordinate research projects and develop clinical trials (Richman was recently profiled on Science Careers).
Below are some of the key points the panelists made:

Making decisions

Transitions are seldom easy. One
early challenge in a translational career is understanding what you want
to do. Ask yourself “‘Do I want a faculty position in the place where I
did my training?'” Richman says. “I wasn’t one of them and I knew that
early on, but really facing that was the first step” for her.

Making connections

you’ve decided you want to work in translational research, do not
expect any clearly laid-out paths in front of you. For Vickers, the
biggest hurdle was to “identify … how to pick up a link with
physicians.” Look around for physicians and ways to integrate your
science into what they are trying to do, Vickers recommends. 
Finding resources
bonus to striking up relationships with physicians may be additional
research funding. “Sometimes they have … no time or energy to do their
own research projects,” Vickers says. “Some of them will trade their
[research] money for research papers.”

You also need to be
proactive with companies, as these could also give you funding or
research materials. Vickers for example started researching disease
biomarkers as a graduate student after convincing a company to give him
free test kits for his research. Still, before you enter collaborations
with industry, make sure you are savvy in intellectual property issues,
Sarma warns.

Another source of funding are
specialized fellowships from government and private agencies. For
example, as a postdoc, Sarma received a Career Award at the Scientific Interface from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Richman won a NIH K08 Mentored Clinical Scientist Development Award to do a Ph.D. in virology after obtaining her veterinary degree. 
Getting trained
into the translational realm will require you to complement your
skills. Get to know the fields you want to collaborate with and expect
questions such as, “‘Are you aware of what we are doing? Do you
understand our challenges and where we come from, and can you speak our
language?” Sarma says. Early on, “Take courses. Educate yourself, so
that when time comes to do the research, you are much more prepared.”

may also need to brush up on your statistics skills. You need to
understand whether your results are “statistically significant to know
… ‘is this drug doing the job?’. You have no room for errors,” Vickers
says. For his research in atherosclerosis Vickers also had to get
familiar with the drug development pipeline and clinical studies.

Richman notes that her training in understanding the clinical trials process came on the job after she joined MedImmune.

Working in multidisciplinary teams

is essential in translational research. For the work that Vickers does,
the clinical team recruits patients for tissue donation, and a team of
basic scientists proceeds by investigating the mechanisms underlying the
disease, Vickers says. The idea is that “The fruit of our work” then
goes “back to the clinical setting, and the physician takes care of

As for Sarma, working with surgeons is also a way to
“bring a new dimension to research,” she says. “They teach me so many
things that I had no idea” about before, she says, and they are also
appreciative of what she brings to the table. This makes research “so
much more exciting,” she adds.

Working in an industry setting,
Richman also spends a lot of her time working in teams with research and
translational scientists, clinical development people, and
representatives from the legal and business departments. “By bringing
all these people together at the onset of your project, you cover all
your bases,” Richman says.  

Being true to yourself
to be effective as a team player you also need to never forget who you
are. As one of Sarma’s mentors once told her, “‘Stick to you. Don’t try
to go into their world and learn their tools. That is why you are
interesting to these people,'” she recalls. “You have to understand what
your strengths are and that is where your contribution is.”
Accepting potential downsides
potential difficulty during career progression lies in performance
metrics. “At some point I got involved and I am sure they are going to
say ‘Did she impact the patient at the end of the day?'” Sarma says.
Curing a disease is a hard thing to accomplish, and that may be
intimidating for young scientists choosing a translational career, she

Another potential downside is money. As Ph.D.
scientists, “we always make less money because a lot of M.D.s will still
be able to see patients, so they make money from their institution”
that way, Vickers says. “That’s something to think about, long hours and
low pay, but it’s very exciting. I am seeing my science transfer [from]
in vitro to humans.”
Seeing the human value
research can involve direct contact with patients. Sarma, for example,
interacts with patients with Parkinson’s disease who have deep brain
stimulation implants, and observes surgeries to to implant the devices.
“Patients are really willing to talk to you. It’s a very important part
of my work,” she says. Such experiences can directly inform research
Getting extra motivation
all, working in translational research gives you a sense of purpose
that few other research fields can give. “When I was in grad school, our
lab was in a hospital. You see people in a wheelchair and their
families,” Vickers says. “It gives you a daily motivation that you are
impacting these [people] to some level. It gives you the feeling that
you are doing something with your science.”