CTSI Spotlight: Dr. Emmanuel Thomas, KL2 Scholar
Emmanuel Thomas, M.D., Ph.D., returned to his hometown of Miami in 2012 to start a translational research program focused on preventing liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma at the Miller School of Medicine.
Having previously graduated from the Miller School of Medicine (M.D. 2007, Ph.D., 2005), Emmanuel was interested in how chronic viral infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B and C subsequently cause liver disease and liver cancer and have devastating effects on our local community.
While his research studies the complex mechanisms by which these viruses destroy the liver, Emmanuel has also focused his attention on developing a community screening program for Hepatitis C that also links patients to care and curative treatment.
In 2015, Emmanuel became a Miami CTSI KL2 Scholar after receiving our career development award.
The protected time, education and training resources and mentorship that the award brought, were critical in enabling Emmanuel to successfully secure two important and highly-competitive grants in 2017: the Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program ($1.9M) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) R 35 Outstanding Investigator Award ($1.9M). He is also supported by the NIH Loan Repayment Program (LRP) and is a coinvestigator on two U01 grants.
Dr. Thomas sat down with CTSI Communications to discuss the challenges and opportunities for early stage investigators in today’s research environment.
Why is it important to stay engaged with CTSI as a KL2 scholar?
Twenty years ago researchers were defined mainly by their own work and being an expert and innovator in their specific field. But due to the increased competition for grants, a more successful strategy can be to interact with other investigators that are experienced and credentialed in a separate field. Engaging with the CTSI allowed me to connect with investigators in other fields and identify synergies between our programs.
What are some of the challenges that junior investigators face?
No longer can you submit a few grants and get one funded right away. The success rates are low. For example, the National Cancer Institute funding rate can be as low as 7% for R01 applications. This day in age, people have to be comfortable with submitting multiple grants over a prolonged period of time. In addition, mentors must be comfortable supporting young faculty through this difficult stage.
Also, don’t be afraid to submit a grant that is not perfect and don’t take criticisms from grant reviews, peers or mentors too seriously. It’s hard for everyone now to get funding, even senior investigators, and there’s a lot of negativity. This can stop people from wanting to apply. You just have to ignore all of that and keep submitting while utilizing constructive criticism to improve the grants. Of course, there should be a trajectory of improvement in the submitted grants through these efforts.
What is some other advice you can give?
Any funding is good funding. Historically, there has been a focus on NIH funding; however, I think that it may not be the best initial source of support for some. You need to apply to any type of funding that you can get – state funding, DOD, foundation funding, etc. That really is the key for junior investigators. Just getting that first grant can start an upward trajectory of success for obtaining more grants and in increasingly competitive funding agencies like the NIH.
Mentorship is important in writing a grant. There’s a lot of learning that has to be done on how to submit grants and the mechanisms and the procedures involved. Many were not taught these skills in their postgraduate training. People nowadays need multiple sources to learn about grant writing. Dr. King’s course (CTSI Grant Writing Workshop) is a great foundation and everyone should take it, but your education won’t stop there. Grant writing is an evolving process since the pieces of a complete grant continue to change and become more complex.
Why is it important to make your work visible and have a presence online?
For us that are trying to build cohorts, you have to be visible. One way was to create a website, but it’s also important to use video and social media. Making videos is a really important skill set that everyone should develop. I’ve done some work on YouTube already. The Internet is our portal to the world, and it’s a platform we all can use to educate people on what we are doing and what’s also being done in the field.
What brought you back to Miami and how does it influence what you do?
I did do my initial training here and then I left. I had different choices as to where I could go, but coming back to Miami, my parents are still here, is a big draw because I have an emotional connection to the city. It makes me think about what’s going on outside of the University and how my work impacts the area that I’m emotionally connected to. What I think is important, is doing work in the community and having that grow over time and not being in a rush to have it happen.