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.
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Local innovators and members of the Minnesota entrepreneurial community gathered May 15, 2020, for a virtual Walleye Tank: COVID-19 Showcase. The event showcased how Minnesota innovators and community leaders are stepping up to conquer COVID-19 challenges. It was hosted by Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship and University of Minnesota.
The event is typically held as an in-person pitch competition. But this time, due to the pandemic, the event’s organizers decided to pivot to an online format. Fifteen teams presented; five in each of three categories:
Diagnosing the virus and understanding spread
Personal protective equipment and public safety
Resiliency in the community
There were no winners at this showcase event. Instead, participants cast their lines for support from the local entrepreneurial community. Audience members were invited to donate directly to teams with projects of interest. In addition, teams were invited to kick off crowdfunding campaigns at the event.
“This is all about feeding forward the entrepreneur ecosystem and the innovations space because we know that getting out of COVID is not a short-term solution,” said Stephen Ekker, Ph.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Office of Entrepreneurship, in an interview with ABC 6 News. “It’s going to take all of us working together but we can innovate out of it and we can make a better future out of this, not just going back to normal but making a new normal that’s better.”
The next Walleye Tank event is scheduled for December 11, 2020.
As the COVID-19 pandemic takes more lives each day across the U.S., public health officials report that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted. In a paper published as an accepted pre-proof article May 15, 2020, in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science, researchers at Mayo Clinic detail how a community-engaged intervention tackled critical health communication problems within vulnerable minority communities. Community leaders collaborated with medical experts to serve as trusted conduits of information to their communities. The shared goal was to help people of diverse backgrounds understand what they need to know about COVID-19 prevention and testing, how to seek care, and how to access community resources.
Mark Wieland, M.D., a community internal medicine physician at Mayo Clinic and the first author on the study says that the pandemic has amplified existing health inequities.
“We know that racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionality impacted with chronic diseases and that these same communities tend to have higher COVID-19 infection and death rates,” says Dr. Wieland.
These disparities are driven by social determinants of health, such as socioeconomic position, immigration status, and limited English language proficiency as well as other factors, he says.
To find solutions to these complex problems, it’s crucial for academic researchers and community stakeholders to work together as equal partners and to leverage existing partnerships, says Irene Sia, M.D., an infectious disease physician at Mayo Clinic, and the study’s senior author.
“Rich relationships have been formed over years and over many joint projects that have benefited the community,” says Dr. Sia. In a pandemic situation, these relationships are critical because they provide a strong foundation for outreach to vulnerable populations.”
Drs. Sia and Wieland are part of a long-standing community-academic research partnership, Rochester Healthy Community Partnership (RHCP), in Rochester, Minn., formed in 2004. Through the community partnership, they are working with community leaders to rapidly identify community needs and to co-create and deliver the right messages.
Community members say that the work of the partnership has allowed them to communicate more effectively, enabling communities to take actions to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We are very grateful of the guidance, support, and the strategies put forward by RHCP, and the difference it has made in the fight against COVID-19,” says Ahmed Osman, Somali community member and program manager, Employment Services, Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, and a co-author on the study. “Without RHCP commitment, I really believe that we would not have been able to reach out and educate our communities, and be prepared as we are today. RHCP work is far from over, but the community knows that they have a reliable and trusted partner.”
The work is ongoing. Researchers and community members plan to continue their collaboration throughout the pandemic to discuss needs and to coordinate communication.
The researchers say that they hope the methods laid out in their paper can serve as a model for other community-academic partnerships during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These sorts of partnerships are common throughout the country,” says Dr. Wieland. “Each partnership is unique, but we think our framework can be a guide for others to borrow from to help them communicate with vulnerable populations.” Mayo Clinic currently has two other research groups who have begun successfully using this framework.
In the near future, Drs. Wieland and Sia say they plan to study the impact this health communication strategy has on self-efficacy and perceived capacity, as well as on health behaviors within vulnerable communities.
Watch this Mayo Clinic Q&A interview with Drs. Sia and Wieland:
“I didn’t realize how important the program was until after
I applied and got it,” says Dr. Walther-Antonio. “I didn’t expect or anticipate
the impact it would have on me and my career. Now, through the program, I see the
whole system lifting me up. I really feel that I have institutional support
behind me and a kind of family invested in me and the success of my research.”
Mayo Clinic Public Affairs recently sat down with Dr.
Walther Antonio to ask her about her experience in the KL2 program and her
future goals in research.
To really shake the ground you need diversity of thought and you need to be willing to take calculated risks. That’s where the big transformative power of science comes from.
– Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D.
Why did you apply to the KL2 program?
My fellowship advisers, particularly Dr. Virginia Miller, encouraged me to apply. KL2 is a great opportunity because it really protects a lot of time—75% protected time for three years—letting me take a breath and do more of the research I’m passionate about and not just write grants all day long.
What is your research project?
I’m working on figuring out the role of the microbiome in endometrial cancer. We’ve found a signature, kind of like a biomarker of the microbiome, associated with patients with the disease. We want to find out if this is just a biomarker or if there is a role the bacteria play in the causation or progression of the disease. Our hypothesis is that a particular bacterium that is highly associated with the disease is infecting the cells and disrupting the cellular machinery, causing the cell to develop carcinogenic properties. If we’re right and the bacteria has a role in this process that gives us a target to help treat the disease. It would be easier to target the bacteria than to target the cancer, which is a part of the patient. And it would be less of a burden on the patient too.
The KL2 program recruits a diverse team of research scholars and emphasizes the importance of multidisciplinary team science. Why do you think that’s important?
My training is in astrobiology. It’s a world where, I often
say, it’s not just that people think outside the box, is that they have no
boxes. Because of that, it’s rare for there to be a question that nobody in the
room can answer. Or maybe they know somebody who knows the answer. That breadth
of contact and experience is a huge advantage.
I try to bring this kind of “no box” thinking to my medical
research. I always try to hire people
who are not like me so I get that diversity of thought and experience at the
table. For a simple problem, you can probably be more efficient with a
specialized team. But for complex problems that involve, say, a paradigm shift,
that’s difficult to do with a specialized team. If you all have the same kind
of background and training, you have tunnel vision. To really shake the ground
you need diversity of thought and you need to be willing to take calculated
risks. That’s where the big transformative power of science comes from.
Has the KL2 program taught you anything unexpected?
I never anticipated I would enjoy, or gain so much from the
classwork that is required. I looked at the list of courses and got excited.
I’ve learned a lot and explored topics I would never have had time to learn
In particular, I’ve gotten really into bioethics and health equity. I took a class from Dr. Joyce Balls-Berry on diversity and I got a publication out of that, which was very well received. It asked the question: “are early screening biomarkers for endometrial cancer needed to reduce health disparities?”
In endometrial cancer, which is the focus of my KL2
research, there are disparities related to screening. Some people think there’s
no need to develop a screening test because most cases tend to be found early
when it’s relatively easy to treat. But that’s really only true of white women.
Black women don’t tend to have the same symptoms as white women and, due to a
variety of other systemic inequities, endometrial cancer tends not to be
detected early, which leads to higher rates of advanced disease and higher
rates of morbidity and mortality.
I’ve come to realize that a lot of the difficulties of
implementing new medical approaches are not necessarily related to the science.
It’s the system that’s not prepared for it. This knowledge is so powerful and
it gives me a framework to think about how research should be designed to
address systemic as well as scientific issues.
How have your mentors helped guide you in your development as a researcher?
I can’t even count the ways they’ve helped me. Heidi Nelson, Nicholas Chia, Scott Kauffmann, Bill Cliby, Virginia Miller, Robin Patel, Jim Maher, Andrea Mariani; the list goes on. They are always one phone call away, or one short walk away. I appreciate every minute of the time they dedicate to me, because I know how valuable and limited their time is. These are such important, accomplished scientists and they’re people I can reach out to any time; I know they’re there and they’ll do anything to help me.
It feels really good to have people on your side like that. My mentors have been absolutely critical to my development as a person as well as a scientist. They push me forward beyond the science and into leadership and career development opportunities as well. I would not even have applied for a KL2 scholarship if it wasn’t for them.
Would you like to become a research mentor to someone else?
Mentoring is something I truly enjoy. I always tell people
that if you discover the cure to cancer and it dies with you in a coffin it
doesn’t do anybody any good. It’s really important to share knowledge and to
bring others along on for the journey. The more different those people are from
you the better because that’s what leads to big transformations. The only way
to move science along is to share it.
Engaging in research can be challenging and intimidating for those who have never done it before. Mayo Clinic’s pharmacy residency program ensures all its trainees are set up for success by offering research and scholarship education as a standard part of their curriculum. A recent paper published in Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning demonstrates the impact of this training program, showing significant improvements in residents’ knowledge and confidence toward research and biostatistics as well as higher levels of academic productivity at one year after graduation.
Leveling the playing
“Residents come to Mayo Clinic with varying degrees of formal
training in research,” observes Jason Barreto, Pharm.D., lead author. “The
pharmacy department’s structured research education is intended to bridge existing
gaps in training. We want to provide
knowledge about research methods and promote involvement with meaningful, impactful,
scientific investigation. Completion of
this curriculum enables residents to critically interpret the medical
literature and to pursue research opportunities both during and after their
residency with confidence.”
A two-day, interactive workshop delivered by
pharmacy department researchers.
Completion of a pharmacist-mentored research
project involving a multidisciplinary investigative team.
The study found that, before training began, although baseline
knowledge of biostatistics and clinical research skills was relatively high
based on a knowledge assessment, only 27% of residents reported feeling at
least somewhat confident their knowledge and skills, and only 19% reported a
positive attitude toward their understanding of statistical terminology.
After training was complete, knowledge assessment scores
improved and reported feelings of confidence and positive attitude skyrocketed.
91% of participants reported feeling at least somewhat confident in their
knowledge and skills, and 82% reported a positive attitude toward their
comprehension of statistical terminology. One year after graduation, 53% of
participants had successfully published at least one peer-reviewed manuscript
(the general publication rate is 4-20%).
Garrett Schramm, R.Ph., director of Pharmacy Education and Academic Affairs at Mayo Clinic, is a firm believer in his department’s research training program. “Our research curriculum began in 2007 when three pharmacists came together with a goal to formally incorporate research into our training programs. The success of the curriculum, coupled with Mayo Clinic’s longstanding collaborative relationships between pharmacists, providers, and biostatisticians, has resulted in a resident research publication rate of 53% at the end of the first year and 75% overall,” he says. “The pharmacy department hires approximately half of its residents, and all of those individuals are equipped to go on to become productive research team members or independent researchers. It’s an investment in the future,” he says. “Get these people trained and they could be making research a part of their daily activity for the next 30 years.”
In subsequent studies, Dr. Barreto wants to dig deeper to
find out which aspects of the research training program have the greatest
impact on knowledge and confidence. He also wants to study the impact of the
training program over a longer period of time with a larger sample group.
One last point of intrigue for a future endeavor: study participants
reported an increase in knowledge immediately after an intense, structured
curriculum; however, whether that knowledge is retained or improved after
several years into clinical practice remains unclear and requires investigation.
Ultimately, he says the biggest takeaway from this study is
the ability to increase research and statistical knowledge as well as the high
levels of scholarly productivity.
“Vince Lombardi [former coach of the Green Bay Packers], used to say ‘confidence is contagious,’” says Dr. Barreto. “I like to think our program is helping more residents to couple an increased level of confidence with the knowledge to properly conduct research. The more people we have on the research journey the better, because that leads to more medical advances that can help more and more patients.”
Adrian Vella, M.D., says medical careers run like a hereditary condition in his family. “My father is a physician, my brother is a surgeon, and there are lots of medical people on my mother’s side as well.” So it was almost inevitable that, from an early age, he thought about becoming a physician as well.
Or an astronaut. His ten-year-old self would have been ok with that too.
Dr. Vella’s medical career trajectory began to diverge from the patient care path followed by the rest of his family when he moved halfway around the world to join Mayo Clinic’s residency program. He wasn’t here long before the research bug bit. It bit hard.
Now, 25 years later, Dr. Vella is a clinician-researcher at Mayo Clinic, specializing in endocrinology and diabetes research. In addition, he was recently appointed director of Mayo’s Clinical Research and Trials Unit, which provides infrastructure and support for medical researchers at Mayo Clinic and in industry.
Back home in Malta, when he began his training, he never
would have predicted that his career would take this turn. But he’s glad it
did. “The opportunity came along and I decided to embrace it — with both feet
and hands,” he says with a grin.
Coming to Mayo ‘almost by accident’
A friend in medical school had applied to Mayo’s residency
program the year before so, on a whim, Dr. Vella decided to apply to Mayo too. Traditionally,
he says, Maltese medical students apply to schools in England to complete post-graduate
training. But on impulse, he decided to throw Mayo Clinic into the mix.
Dr. Vella forgot all about his application until a few
months later, when the phone rang at his parents’ house.
When his mother told him Henry Schultz, M.D., the residency program director from Mayo Clinic, was on the line, he didn’t believe her at first. “’How would you expect me to know who the residency program director at Mayo Clinic is?’ she asked me, so exasperated,” he recounts. “’I didn’t just make that name up out of a cloud.’”
“Anyway, I talked to Dr. Schultz. And a few days later he called me back to offer me a place in the program,” he says. Dr. Vella remembers putting the phone down and asking his mother what he should do about the offer. His mother, true matriarch of a medical family, knew all about Mayo Clinic. She turned to him and said, “It’s pretty obvious what you’re going to do. You’re going to go.” And that was that.
Getting hooked on research
Research training is a standard component of the curriculum for Mayo Clinic residents and fellows, so it wasn’t long before Dr. Vella got his first taste of the lab.
One of his first and most important research mentors was Robert Rizza, M.D., an endocrinologist whose research has been responsible for major advances in diabetes care. Dr. Rizza helped kindle a desire in Dr. Vella to understand the underlying physiological reasons that determine whether a person will develop type 2 diabetes.
“I remember our first publication together,” says Dr. Vella. “I learned how good it feels to put in years of work and all the deferred gratification, and at the end to have the physical representation of what we had done. The fact that that paper still stands on its own, all these years later, is a real source of pride.”
Dr. Rizza recently retired and now Dr. Vella leads this
“Contrary to popular belief, type 2 diabetes is not
something caused by the patients themselves,” says Dr. Vella. While diet and
lifestyle play an important role, other physiological factors have a great deal
of influence. “If you went into a bariatric surgery practice, you’d find that
only about one-third of the patients there have type 2 diabetes — two-thirds
don’t. Even when someone is significantly overweight, diabetes is not
Dr. Vella’s current research focuses on understanding the physiological reasons why some people are more resilient to developing type 2 diabetes than others. He also seeks to identify disease pathways that can be manipulated to prevent diabetes from developing.
Promoting the tools of the clinical trials trade
As a diabetes investigator, much of Dr. Vella’s research has
relied on the resources of Mayo’s Clinical Research and Trials Unit. “Clinical
diabetes research requires careful control of diet and activity level of
research volunteers, as well as meticulous monitoring of blood sugar, and
inpatient stays,” says Dr. Vella. “This sort of work would be difficult or even
impossible without the support of the Clinical Research and Trials Unit.”
The Clinical Research and Trials Unit offers Mayo Clinic and
industry investigators access to inpatient and outpatient research facilities
staffed by specially trained nurses, registered dieticians, and technical and
support staff; supported by a large selection of procedural and laboratory
The Clinical Trials and Research Unit is a resource Dr.
Vella is determined to promote and protect in his new role as director.
“Many investigators, particularly young investigators, don’t
have sufficient funding to access resources like these without the help of the
Clinical Research and Trials Unit,” says Dr. Vella. The Clinical Research and
Trials Unit enables researchers to accelerate their work, finding answers and
new treatments more quickly.
“I feel very lucky,” says Dr. Vella. “Mayo probably has the best clinical research center in the country, which by definition probably means the best in the world.”
Not everyone is so lucky. Across the United States, following the end of the National Institutes of Health clinical research center support program in 2016, dedicated clinical research resources have been disappearing. Many researchers, including Dr. Vella, are sad to see them go. “I wrote an editorial in Diabetes with Dr. Nair and Dr. Jensen four years ago saying ‘clinical trial units … we’ll miss them when they’re gone,’” says Dr. Vella.
Fortunately, the Clinical Research and Trials Unit at Mayo
Clinic is still going strong thanks to robust institutional support. “Mayo is
committed to its Clinical Research and Trials Unit and understands the enormous
contributions it brings to medical science,” says Dr. Vella.
Growing the Clinical Research and Trials Unit
Dr. Vella has set his sights on developing and expanding the Clinical Research and Trials Unit.
Historically, many of Mayo’s most important medical
discoveries have depended on detailed human study. And the clinicians and
scientists who made those discoveries have depended on Mayo’s rich clinical
research infrastructure to advance their discoveries into practice.
Dr. Vella doesn’t think the need for these resources is
likely to go away.
Over the next few years, Dr. Vella’s biggest goal for the Clinical
Research and Trials Unit is to develop its client base to make it more
“I want to increase the scope of the studies we support and the number of investigators using the Clinical Research and Trials Unit,” he says. “A year from now, I plan to have increased the number of studies, both industry- and federally-funded, by 10%.”
Dr. Vella also wants to help other academic medical centers find ways to hold on to their existing clinical research units and transition to new funding models less dependent on federal dollars. “Other institutions have seen the success we’ve had here at Mayo and want to learn from that,” says Dr. Vella. “I tell them, it’s cheaper to keep a resource like this going than to rebuild later from scratch.”
Never know what to say at New Year’s Eve parties? The Advancing the Science blogis here to help with this top-10 recap of our most popular medical research stories from 2019.
Everyone loves talking about their health.
So keep this list queued up on your phone for quick reference and you’ll never
run out of interesting scientific anecdotes.
#1 Buh-bye, breast cancer
Can breast cancer be prevented with a vaccine? Mayo Clinic immunology researcher Keith Knutson, Ph.D, thinks so. And he thinks it will happen during his lifetime. He also thinks it will be possible to prevent breast cancer from recurring by stimulating the immune system.
Gastroenterologists agree that removing a colorectal polyp is an important step in preventing colon cancer. But removing them can be tricky if they’re large and flat. A new minimally invasive approach, called endoscopic mucosal resection, makes it possible to remove large polyps without surgery.
In the first-ever clinical trial of its kind, Jared Ausnehmer had stem cells from his own bone marrow injected into his heart to treat hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The therapy surpassed all expectations. Two months later, he was cleared to return to normal life and his favorite sport, basketball.
#4 Hospice research aims to understand process of dying, help loved ones with end-of-life care
Death, ultimately, is inevitable. But for patients at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato’s Hospice Program, the process of dying is becoming more bearable for themselves and their families as a result of research studies aimed at understanding more.
“Even though it’s the end of life, it’s incredibly important for patients to have closure and resolution, and feel good about their life’s story and what they’re leaving with other people,” says Greg Kutcher, M.D. “We need to better understand how to do that.”
#5 Chemo first for better outcomes in bile duct cancer
Oncology patients usually receive chemotherapy along with surgery to treat bile duct cancer. However, recently Mayo Clinic researchers found that patients who receive chemotherapy before surgery to remove their cancer were more likely to live longer than patients who received chemotherapy after surgery.
#6 Researchers look at possible link between low vitamin B12 and Parkinson’s symptoms
Low vitamin B12 levels can worsen some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. While it’s not clear why, there may be a relationship between B12 and a neurochemical that’s believed to be key to cognition and postural control.
#7 McArdle’s sign, long overlooked, is an indicator of multiple sclerosis
McArdle’s sign is a distinctive muscle weakness that affects patients with spinal cord disease and researchers are looking at it as a possible indicator of multiple sclerosis. The namesake of the “sign,” M.J. McArdle, was a professor of neurology in London, and one of his patients with advanced multiple sclerosis needed to extend his neck and tip his head back to maintain a steady gait.
When patients are feeling tired and sick, it can be difficult to understand discharge instructions, particularly when they’re written in complicated medical language. Mayo researchers are working to change that by studying ways to improve readability and comprehension through the use of simpler language and other teaching tools.
#9 Business innovation with an eye on improving vision
If the eyes are the window to the world, Timothy Olsen, M.D. is building high performance window frames. The opthalmologist has set his sights on developing and bringing to market a first-of-its-kind implantable device for treating age-related macular degeneration.
#10 Bone marrow stem cells stall out in chronic lymphocytic leukemia
For patients who have chronic lymphocytic leukemia, fighting off a serious infection can be difficult and often is just not possible. And a team of Mayo researchers is starting to find out why. They hope that by understanding how bone marrow function is impaired in chronic lymphocytic leukemia patients, they can develop unique strategies to boost bone marrow function or find alternate treatments that do not block or modify marrow function.
“These conditions affect 10-15 percent of Americans, and it’s amazing how much we still have to learn about the molecular mechanisms of these diseases,” says Dr. Beyder.
Dr. Beyder believes that the “high risk, high reward” approach may be the best way to go when it comes to tackling this problem. He recently received a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, honoring his work as an “exceptionally creative early career investigator,” an award given to support the researchers who pursue high risk, high reward research.
high-risk, high-reward research?
High-risk, high-reward research is innovative research that pushes the boundaries of science and has the potential for broad impact.
“Incremental questions lead to incremental progress,” says Dr. Beyder. “High-risk questions allow us to break away to view the problems in a completely different light or from a different perspective. These approaches allow us to make big leaps forward and often bring true transformation in science and medicine.”
“At Mayo Clinic, we’re focused on turning scientific discoveries into treatments quickly, so patients can benefit as soon as possible,” says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D., president and CEO of Mayo Clinic, and one of Dr. Beyder’s mentors. “To achieve that, we need to think big, move fast, and take well-calculated risks. Researchers like Dr. Beyder are helping advance a new mindset that will accelerate innovation.”
Does the gut
have a sense of touch?
Dr. Beyder wants to get to the bottom of “gut feelings.” These gut feelings may be disrupted and manifest as gastric discomfort, such as indigestion. Dr. Beyder’s research has shown that the cells involved in producing these sensations have a lot in common with the way the skin feels the sensation of touch.
“Mechanical sensors in the gut that release serotonin, which regulates important aspects of digestion, are very similar to the mechanical sensors the skin to that sense touch,” says Dr. Beyder. The next question he wants to answer is the focus of the New Innovator Award – “Does the gut have a sense of touch?”
To answer this question, Dr. Beyder and his team are employing an unusual technique. Rather than observing the function of the mechanosensors in-situ, exerting stimulus on the system and waiting to observe the physiological response, he and his team are reconstructing the system from the ground-up in the lab.
First, the researchers examine each component of the mechanosensory circuit separately.
Next, they rebuild the circuit piece-by-piece in the lab and see how all the components work together.
“The issue with the ‘in-situ’ approach is that only the stimulus and the response are visible to the researcher, and no other steps in between are visible,” says Dr. Beyder. “What’s innovative about our approach is that it allows researchers to see and understand all those steps. We’re looking at the physiology of the gut from a completely new angle.”
No guts, no
“We are poised to deeply understand the function of the mechanosensory circuits in the gut,” says Dr. Beyder, “and we would not be able to get to this point without pushing the envelope with our science, trying approaches not previously explored in our field.”
Beyder hopes his research will point the way to better techniques for
diagnosing and treating gastrointestinal disorders. This includes better and
more precise testing methods, as well as more targeted therapies.
is the best in world in the field of gastroenterology,” says Dr. Beyder.
“I’m proud and humbled to be a part of this group.” He anticipates
that the support he is receiving from the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award
will allow his study team to accelerate their research.
Ultimately, the goal
of his team’s high-risk, high-reward approach is to advance medical science,
ensuring that patients with functional gastrointestinal diseases quickly reap
the benefits of new treatments.
Dr. Carter is like a ship’s navigator, but for research. He and his team in the Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program help investigators plot promising courses through uncharted waters. On occasion, the team helps rescue researchers trapped in data analysis doldrums.
“It’s all about growing Mayo research and keeping it moving forward,” says Dr. Carter.
Dr. Carter arrived at Mayo Clinic in 2009 with a mission: to help clinicians and scientists use the power of their research data to solve real-world problems for patients. He’s very passionate about his role as a biostatistics navigator and mentor. He’s also excited about the promise of the data-driven future of medicine. I sat down with him to ask for the scuttlebutt.
Your background is in math and statistics. What made you decide to take a leap into medical research?
I’ve seesawed between medicine and math my whole life. Early in life, I wanted to be a pediatrician. Then in high school and later in college I got interested in math. I thought about becoming a math teacher and I looked seriously at actuarial sciences. I found my calling when I met a statistics professor who was also trained in biostatistics. He had worked in the field before stepping back into teaching and he brought real life examples to the classroom: stories about medicine and math that dealt with tangible problems. That inspired me and I went to graduate school to study biostatistics. For me, it’s the right balance of math and medicine.
What brought you to
Mayo Clinic and what keeps you here?
I was engaged in research at the Medical University of South Carolina in my hometown of Charleston and I was involved in helping them write their first Clinical and Translational Science Award grant. I was looking to take the next step in my career when I saw an ad from Mayo Clinic for a biostatistics director for its newly funded Clinical and Translational Science Award program. I applied immediately.
At the Medical University of South Carolina, I helped run a “collaboration unit” and was a champion for team science. I brought these ideas with me to Mayo and now still use them to help shape the services provided by Mayo’s Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCaTS).
Mayo’s values are what make me happy to work here. A lot of statisticians work in a theoretical space. In my work at Mayo, I know that the work I do will lead to direct patient impact.
What is your current research interest?
Like many people at Mayo, it’s artificial intelligence (AI). For me, AI blends my interests in computation, statistics and medicine. The data in medicine are complex and AI approaches can help us chart a better course in medicine, opening up new data and insights.
Right now I’m involved in revisiting classical solutions in medical science and looking at the evidence that has been accumulated over time. AI gives us access to different computational tools that may help us better understand complex human processes that have previously resulted in conflicting medical evidence.
Tell me about the Biostatistics, Epidemiology
and Research Design program.
The Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program is a consulting service available to anyone involved in research at Mayo Clinic. We teach investigators how to make the best use of biostatistics in designing, conducting, and analyzing research. Medical data are complex. We show people how to make the most meaningful use of their data in order to advance medicine.
During a typical consult, a biostatistician will sit down with a researcher to review their protocol or manuscript in order to better understand the underlying research question. The program can provide feedback on study aims and design, data management strategies, and data analysis and interpretation. In addition, we can offer general guidance on statistical methods, software, and advanced computational tools. We don’t provide data analysis services—we don’t steer the boat for you. We advise and we enable investigators to perform many routine analyses themselves. When necessary, we help researchers make connections to resources that can help with the more complex analyses.
The Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research Design program recently expanded its services in Florida by partnering with the Florida Clinical Practice Committee and Research Committee to start a pilot program called the Research Accelerator for Clinicians Engaged in Research. Can you tell me more about it?
The Research Accelerator for Clinicians Engaged in Research, sometimes unofficially referred to as “RACER,” is a mentored career development program that helps match early-career clinicians with the resources they need to start pursuing research and prepare to apply for their first extramural grant.
We started this program because we want to grow research in Florida. Right now, Mayo Clinic in Florida has 13% of its clinicians engaged in research, which is about half the percentage they have Rochester and Arizona. We want to change that and programs like this will help us get there. Our vision is that one day we’ll engage our clinicians with a program like RACER the minute they come to Mayo. Get them started competing for one of these awards right away, with research as a part of their career development.
Why is it important
to provide access to programs like the Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Research
Design program and the Research Accelerator?
Everything we’re doing is about advancing research. We accomplish that by making research more accessible and giving our staff the skills to pursue it. Mayo wants its staff to be curious and to allow that curiosity to become a vital part of their careers. We know from experience that this sort of activity leads to finding solutions for unmet patient needs. Delivering hope and healing for patients—that’s “true north” for me, and for all of us here at Mayo Clinic.