"Mentors are absolutely critical to success": A Talk with Faculty of the Inaugural LRF Clinical Research Mentoring Program
Lymphoma research has made significant strides in the last several decades, from more accurate tools for diagnosing lymphoma to new and more effective therapies to treat it. Future progress depends on the success of a new generation of physician-scientists who can build on this foundation and move ever closer to a cure. However, the early career path in biomedical research can be difficult to navigate, particularly in an environment where scientific funding is limited. The Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF) has been investing in early career scientists since its founding through its existing Young Investigator Grants – the Postdoctoral Fellowships and Clinical Research Career Development Awards—but wanted to supplement those traditional grant programs with more direct training and mentoring. In the fall of 2013, LRF opened applications for its inaugural LRF Clinical Research Mentoring Program (LCRMP), a program designed to bring together researchers in the early part of their careers with established experts in lymphoma research. This first class of LRF Scholars will begin their participation in the LCRMP with an intensive, four day workshop in Scottsdale, Arizona in early February 2014.
Kristie Blum, MD of Ohio State University and a member of LRF's Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), is Chair of the LCRMP, providing significant guidance in the creation of the program's agenda and the selection of its faculty. After participating in broader mentoring programs facilitated by the American Society of Hematology (ASH) and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Dr. Blum volunteered to Chair the LCRMP because of the "unique" opportunity to mentor early career scientists specifically in lymphoma clinical research. "The chance to put together a training program that brings fellows and junior faculty together with experienced faculty in the field is exciting and will benefit all involved by creating an opportunity for trainees to meet and learn from the experiences and wisdom of experts in the field as well as foster collaborations with investigators," she says.
During the February workshop, LRF Scholars will present a research proposal of their own and work with the program faculty – who have all successfully obtained LRF, NCI or other grants – to further develop their proposal through small group work and talks on the development and conduct of a trial, the grant submission process, collaborating with translational investigators, and other issues common to early scientific careers. Dr. Blum adds, "The advantage of a subspecialty focused program is that the didactics can be tailored to disease-specific issues that arise in the design of the trial and in working with collaborators in industry, in LRF, and at other institutions."
Dr. Blum further notes that most fellows and junior faculty have limited opportunities to receive specific training in clinical investigation. "I know for myself much of my training as a clinical investigator has been a 'learn as you go' type of training," she says, adding that younger researchers often don't get to interact with senior faculty until they are 4 or 5 years into their faculty positions. Since LRF Scholars are in either the last years of their fellowship or the first two[CHK] years of their first faculty position, Dr. Blum notes that the "early interaction with senior members … will provide valuable opportunities for the trainees to receive ongoing mentorship …from these faculty."
Sonali Smith, MD of the University of Chicago, and a member of the faculty for the February workshop, agrees. "I wish something like the [LCRMP] had been around early in my own career. [The Scholars] have the opportunity to not only hear valuable feedback, but to start to build relationships and network with experts in the field." Both she and fellow faculty member Peter Martin, MD of Weill Cornell Cancer Center, are looking forward not just to teaching the Scholars, but possibly working with them after the program. "One of the great lessons [from my own mentors] has been the importance of collaborative relationships with researchers around the world," Dr. Martin says, "By participating as faculty in the LCRMP, I'm hoping to share some of my experiences and perhaps to forge new collaborations with up-and-coming researchers."
All three researchers note that mentors have played a crucial role in their own careers. When asked if he had a mentor during the early stage of his career, Dr. Martin says, "the funny thing about this question is that it implies that I no longer have a mentor. The opposite is true, and it's the best thing about my job." Dr. Blum credits several mentors, including John Byrd and SAB members Nancy Bartlett and Bruce Cheson (himself an LCRMP faculty member) "who were all critical in my early success and also remain close collaborators on a number of projects to this day." She adds "I think one of the benefits of the LCRMP will be the chance to foster multiple mentoring relationships as I believe most people rely on more than one mentor depending on the project and their future career development." It is a sentiment which Dr. Smith agrees, noting a number of mentors who guided her in different phases of her career – including John Ultmann in her early days of working with patients, Koen van Besien when she was learning about stem cell transplant and publishing her first papers, and Bruce Cheson and SAB Chair John Leonard for opportunities to collaborate and write clinical trials via LRF and CALGB/ALLIANCE. "Mentors are absolutely critical to success" Dr. Smith says, "some will open doors, some will provide constructive criticism, and some will simply listen."
After the February workshop, the LRF Scholars will work on their projects with a designated mentor at their home institution, as well as participate in follow up programs with the LCRMP faculty and SAB members over the next two years. Dr. Martin and Dr. Smith both hope the Scholars leave the program invigorated by the connections they have made. "I'm hoping that I can help them to maintain their enthusiasm despite the challenging current research environment," Dr. Martin says. As the follow up meetings occur and new classes of Scholars are selected, Dr. Blum hopes this inaugural program will lead the current class of Scholars to apply for grants through LRF in the near future, as well as an increasing number of applications to the LCRMP itself. As LRF seeks to establish its Clinical Research Mentoring Program as a valuable resource for the next generation of lymphoma researchers, the dedication and enthusiasm of the inaugural faculty is its most valuable resource.
A sample RFP for the LCRMP is available here.
To learn more about the LRF research program, or the research and investigators supported by the Foundation please click here.
To read about other Featured LRF Researchers, click here.