From ER Physician to Translational Scientist via CTSA Program Support

Translational Science Highlight

  • A cornerstone of NCATS' CTSA Program is to cultivate the translational science workforce.

Many hospital clinicians are interested in pursuing research, but they often do not have sufficient training in this area or the time to devote to such endeavors. But through NCATS’ Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA) Program support, some talented clinicians interested in pursuing research opportunities are finding a way forward.

For example, Faheem Guirgis, M.D., an emergency department physician at the Jacksonville campus of the University of Florida (UF), became fascinated with sepsis — an illness resulting from bloodstream infections — during his residency. He was particularly interested in the science underlying the causes of the illness and its physiologic effects. But with little research training, limited time and mentors, and a lack of access to biomedical research facilities, it was difficult for him to make progress.

Enter Thomas A. Pearson, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiologist and cardiovascular epidemiologist, UF Health executive vice president for research and education, and the director of UF’s Mentored Career Development Award KL2 training grants. Pearson works from Gainesville at the university’s CTSA Program hub, which is funded by NCATS to cultivate the translational science workforce and speed discoveries to the patient bedside. KL2 awards provide support for early career development of multidisciplinary clinical and translational scientists.

Two scientists in a lab

University of Florida Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine Faheem Guirgis and Scientific Research Manager Ricardo Ungaro work with samples in the UF Sepsis and Critical Illness Research Center.

“We established the ‘K College’ for early-career investigators to provide training in research design, biostatistics and grant application writing,” Pearson said. “The goal is to connect basic scientists with the clinicians who have the insights into potential applications, and Guirgis was the first recipient of a KL2 award at the UF College of Medicine at Jacksonville.”

Pearson connected Guirgis with mentors among the faculty at the UF Sepsis and Critical Illness Research Center in Gainesville, more than 70 miles from Jacksonville, where Guirgis is based. The KL2 grant and resources provided through UF’s CTSA Program training hub enabled Guirgis to take advantage of distance-learning opportunities covering topics such as research methods and laboratory techniques. On the Gainesville campus, Guirgis worked with research mentors who are experts in oxidative stress and inflammation biology.

“Once you have authorized and dedicated time to conduct research, you can overcome the distance barrier,” Guirgis said.

Thanks to NCATS’ support and the university’s additional NIH research funding for its departments of surgery and aging, Guirgis was able to access samples, generate pilot data and tap into his mentors’ expertise to develop a sophisticated — and successful — application for an NIH Mentored Patient-Oriented Research Career Development award. With that support, Guirgis now has enough time to carry out a research project while continuing to take courses in clinical and translational research design and methods.

For his research project, Guirgis is studying the question of why sepsis patients’ cholesterol levels drop precipitously, because those whose blood lipids are extremely low tend to fare very poorly.

“With the help of NCATS’ and broader NIH support, I plan to enroll 160 sepsis patients at two university sites to identify lipid-based therapies for sepsis,” he said.

In bridging the gap between clinician and clinician-scientist, UF is increasing its research capacity at a satellite campus with a large and underserved population. Creating opportunities for clinicians to gain practical research experience by working with interdisciplinary teams guided by experienced mentors is a key goal of the CTSA Program. This team science approach helps prepare clinician-scientists to better address today’s complex research challenges.

“Being involved with research has helped me study the clinical trajectory of sepsis and develop a better clinical sense,” Guirgis said. “What’s more, my training in translational medicine has made me a better physician.”


Posted March 2017