As a doctoral student in the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences (DGP), Susan Park dedicates much of her time to the laboratory, where she’s focused on investigating the immune response to ocular herpesvirus infections.
Although the ultimate goal of her research is to improve outcomes for patients, Park had previously had limited experience with the clinical side of medicine.
“My project has a long-term goal of discovering therapeutic targets for ocular herpes infections, but I had rarely been exposed to what occurs after the discovery of a potential target,” explained Park, who conducts her research in the laboratory of Richard Longnecker, PhD, the Dan and Bertha Spear Research Professor of Microbiology-Immunology.
So earlier this year, when the DGP and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago launched a new partner program to expose PhD candidates to the clinical side of research, Park eagerly enrolled as one of its first participants.
The program, called Kids-Inspired Innovation for Careers in Science (KIICS), provides PhD students an opportunity to step out of the laboratory and into the clinic, where they can gain a deeper understanding of translational research, identify current challenges in medicine and learn how to better collaborate with clinical partners.
The focus of this year’s pilot program was pediatric infectious diseases, and all four participants were advanced DGP students conducting research in microbiology and infectious disease.
“It was truly a great experience to learn how basic research impacts treatments for patients, and it gave me new motivation to work on projects in the future with a translational research component,” Park said. “It gave me perspective on what is needed in the clinic, and what I can do to bridge that gap between basic science and the clinic.”
Bringing Students From Bench to Bedside
Seed, who is also associate chief research officer for basic sciences at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, had previously launched a clinical exposure program at Duke University and was eager to establish a similar program at Northwestern.
“In my experience, this type of a program becomes a major attraction for top trainees across the country who seek translational perspectives for their work and are seeking exposure to a variety of career opportunities,” Seed explained. “I’m excited to see a thriving Northwestern and Lurie Children’s partnership that supports this innovative training experience for our talented trainees.”
In the nine-month KIICS program, PhD students gain insights into clinical medicine through a range of activities, including shadowing physicians on rounds at Lurie Children’s, participating in clinical journal clubs and case study conferences, and visiting clinical laboratories or Institutional Review Board meetings. They also partake in “Shocker Lunches,” where the students, under faculty mentor guidance, share an observation made during their clinical experience that surprised them and discuss the case and the science behind the case with the KIICS group as a whole.
Feedback from participants has been enthusiastic so far, according to Pamela Carpentier, PhD, associate director of DGP. “All the students commented on how motivating it is for them as microbiology scientists to see the human toll of infectious diseases, and seeing these unmet needs gives them ideas for their own research in the future,” Carpentier said. “It makes diseases that they have only read about real, and it really puts into perspective that they could be doing something in the laboratory that will affect a real life.”
For participant Ashlee Bell-Cohn, observing how physicians make complex diagnostic and treatment decisions was particularly valuable.
“I think it’s common to think that clinicians have a strict formula or checklist to follow to diagnosis every patient, but that’s not always the case. Patients — just like science experiments, or science in general — most of the time don’t fit into a perfect box,” said Bell-Cohn, who studies how prostate immunology contributes to the development of lower urinary tract symptoms in the laboratory of Praveen Thumbikat, PhD, the O’Connor Family Research Professor of Urology. “Sometimes the answer needs to be found by guessing and checking, and other times you just have to go with your gut. Seeing how, at times, the process can be imperfect really allowed me to identify more with physicians — because it’s essentially what I’m doing in the laboratory.”
Seed noted that beyond the benefit to individual students and their research careers, KIICS can also help strengthen translational research taking place at Northwestern today. “I expect this program will also promote new collaborations where the trainees are a bridge between clinicians and scientists,” Seed said.
In coming years, Seed aims to expand KIICS to areas beyond infectious disease and microbiology — such as oncology, endocrinology and cardiology — and include postdoctoral fellows as participants in the program as well.
“I think this program is a fantastic opportunity to gain perspective on the other side of research, and to see how science could be applied in the place where it’s most important: at the patient’s bedside,” Bell-Cohn said.