Advancements in the field of medical research don't always follow a straight line. Obstacles, challenges and questions arise. When researchers reach an impasse, what can they do?
They can start with a new question.
If everyone in the room is saying, "Yes, but ...," then it may be time to find someone who is asking, "Why not?"
That's the idea behind Mayo Clinic's Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies program, also known as IMPACT. The program brings together undergraduates from all fields of study, from colleges and universities around the Midwest. The students form teams with a faculty mentor to take on a single, shared research question.
The question is different each year, but it always points to a real issue facing researchers.
The program was created by Timothy J. Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome at Mayo Clinic, and Katherine Campbell, Ph.D., a former graduate student and research fellow in Dr. Nelson's lab, to bring fresh and creative ideas to research labs.
"Sometimes they commit to an interpretation of data that is 180 degrees from the way we interpret that data," Dr. Nelson says of the students who participate in the program. "When that happens — and that happens every year — as researchers, we get to sit back and say, 'Why did we think that was wrong, and why did we think we were right?' It creates a wonderful dialog that allows us experts to fundamentally challenge the dogma we live by every day."
Since the program's inception, the research questions have been focused on hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Funding has come in part from the philanthropy of the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.
The research on hypoplastic left heart syndrome takes place at the campuses of the colleges the students attend. At the end of the program, the students and researchers gather for a symposium to share their hypotheses. This year, the symposium was held in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Mayo Clinic Health System and the University of Wisconsin — Eau Claire recently established a collaborative research agreement.
"This is a chance for students to get involved with a project that definitely has a direct application, in this case to quality of life and improved patient outcomes," says Michael Carney, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor of academic affairs at the university. "I think that's a real big benefit to this collaboration."
"What we've seen year after year is that the students are becoming confident experts in the field and asking questions that are extremely well-informed," Dr. Campbell says.
Dr. Campbell, the original director of the Innovative Partnership to Advance Curative Therapies program, is mentoring a team for the first time in 2019. She is now an assistant professor in the Department of Interprofessional Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.
"I think what's exciting from an educator's standpoint is that this really allows students an opportunity they don't often get to tackle — the first part of the scientific method — and that is that idea-generation phase," Dr. Campbell says.
In addition to presenting their hypotheses to their peers and faculty mentors, a few student groups from the program will conduct their research in a Mayo Clinic laboratory.
"We've actually tested some ideas that we never would have tested before because we brought those students into our lab," Dr. Nelson says.
The program isn't just about idea generation and research creativity. It also serves as a talent development program that includes hundreds of students who get a chance to experience Mayo Clinic as a potential place to continue their studies or start their careers.
"It gives them a meaningful exposure to who we are as an organization," Dr. Nelson says. "We've had students who have done this program, and are graduate students today and stay connected with us. They're so grateful for this program because it sparked in them something new."
A version of this story originally appeared in Mayo Clinic Magazine.