Advancing the Science

Mayo Clinic Medical Science Blog – an eclectic collection of research- and research education-related stories: feature stories, mini news bites, learning opportunities, profiles and more from Mayo Clinic.

September 5, 2018

Setting tomorrow’s clinical researchers up for success

By Caitlin Doran

Amber Miller, Ph.D.

Michael Gionfriddo, Pharm.D., Ph.D.

Graduates of Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences’ Ph.D. program in Clinical and Translational Science learn the skills to engage in research across the translational research spectrum, from laboratory-based, to patient-based, to population-based.  The goal is to give the next generation of clinical researchers the skills they need to improve patient care, accelerate discovery and innovation, and advance the practice of medicine.

Mayo Clinic Public Affairs recently sat down with two alumni of the Clinical and Translational Science program—Amber Miller, Ph.D., and Michael Gionfriddo, Pharm.D., Ph.D.  Both program graduates have gone on to successful careers in translational research. We asked them to share their reasons for pursuing the clinical and translational science Ph.D. track, any unexpected things they learned during their studies, and how the program set them up for success.

Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical and translational science? Why did you choose Mayo’s graduate program?

Dr. Miller: I decided to go into Mayo’s clinical and translational science Ph.D. program because, although I wanted the discipline and experience of becoming an expert in a very specific field of biomedical research, I still wanted to gain relevant exposure to all the different aspects of clinical development. I wanted to understand the broader process behind clinical translation: how you bring a discovery from the lab all the way to the patient.  I chose Mayo’s graduate school after completing a summer research internship there. I saw the quality of the faculty, facilities and resources there and I knew that what I learned could be translated to the real world.

Dr. Gionfriddo: I’m a pharmacist by training and I had done basic science research. When I decided to go to graduate school, I was looking at pharmacology programs, but a mentor suggested I look at clinical and translational science instead. She told me, “I think you could really use your clinical pharmacy background to translate basic science discoveries to clinical applications.” I took her advice, and I ended up choosing Mayo because of their commitment to research and their mission: “the needs of the patient come first.”

The clinical and translational science program really taught me how to do research from soup to nuts.

~Dr. Michael Gionfriddo

Tell us about the work you do now.

Dr. Miller: I’m a Senior Clinical Research Scientist at Abbott, the medical device company, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I work on the protocol development, implementation, and analysis of our clinical trials. Clinical trials are essential to ensuring that medical products we bring to market are safe and effective for patients. My career path at Abbott started when the director saw my degree on my resume and wanted to know more about it. She thought the “clinical and translational science” title sounded interesting and uniquely applicable to the work we do at Abbott to develop products based on cutting edge medical science to help people live healthier lives.

Dr. Gionfriddo: I’m an assistant professor and clinical researcher at Geisinger, a health system in northeast Pennsylvania. I work on projects aimed at improving the way medication is used by patients and clinicians in our health system. My time at Mayo gave me the skills to answer a diverse set of problems in a variety of ways, such as finding better ways to facilitate conversations between adolescent patients and their physicians about changing needs for asthma medications.

Did you learn anything unique or unexpected that has improved your ability to conduct research?

Dr. Miller:  I benefited from exposure to statistical analysis. I’m kind of mathematically inclined in general and what I learned provided a basis for my thesis research and my post-doctoral fellowship. The knowledge of stats I gained in the clinical and translational science program has really given me a leg up in my current position. I work every day with statisticians who have input on our clinical studies. My background makes it easier for us to understand each other and collaborate.

Dr. Gionfriddo: The clinical and translational science program really taught me how to do research from soup to nuts. But beyond that, it taught me how to be part of a scientific team: how to be flexible and collaborative and work across disciplines. With the breadth of experiences I was given I feel that I can work with any team.

There’s a lot more to translating science than meets the eye.

~Dr. Amber Miller

How do you think the clinical and translational science program set you up for success?

Dr. Miller: A lot of what I learned, both didactically in course work and the collaboratively with Mayo clinicians, has helped prepare me for the work I’m doing now. I work with multiple stakeholders and team members to achieve clinical objectives.  I often think of my role at Abbott as an extended version of the protocol development class I took. On a daily basis, I’m using my skills to figure out how we can put together a clinical study to find answers to meet important business and patient needs.

Dr. Gionfriddo: The faculty and their mentorship are really the strength of the program. Everyone is so welcoming and open, including faculty and clinicians. I’ve stayed in touch with my mentors from the program and we’ve written papers together. I think it’s those relationships, and the experiences I gained because of them, that have given me the knowledge and skills that have helped make me successful.

Bottom row: 2017 Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences Clinical and Translational Science Ph.D. program graduates. Top row: faculty including Anthony Windebank, M.D.; Stephen Ekker, Ph.D.; Lewis Roberts, M.B., Ch.B., Ph.D.; Christopher Pierret, Ph.D.

Why do you think clinical and translational science is an important focus for a researcher?

Dr. Miller: There’s a lot more to translating science than meets the eye. It’s one thing to make an awesome discovery in the laboratory that has the potential to effectively treat a disease, like cancer.  It’s another thing to actually be able to put that discovery into practice. There is so much more that goes on behind the scenes—so many teams, individuals, and other moving parts. It’s more than just science behind the process that gets a discovery to the patients who need it, and it is important for researchers with a clinically-minded focus to understand the larger picture.

Dr. Gionfriddo: I think clinical and translational science is a natural marriage with the idea of the “learning health care system.” It’s the right area for researchers and clinicians who want to focus on continuous improvement and want to know how to do that with more rigor. You get perspective on the whole research spectrum, from bench to bedside. And you learn how to think critically about how to answer important questions. It allows us to reduce waste in research and to improve care in a more efficient manner.

Tags: Amber Miller, Center for Clinical and Translational Science, Education, Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, medical research education, Michael Gionfriddo, News, research

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