By: Joslyn Cassano | Published: October 17, 2022
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Miami faculty members were once again welcomed to Siracusa, Italy, for the International Certificate Program in Translational Medicine hosted by the Eureka Institute for Translational Medicine.
With a focus on communication, team building, and one-on-one mentorship, the Eureka program is designed to train and mentor early career researchers in translational science. Attendees come from a variety of fields, but all share the common interest of improving human health. This past Spring, the Miami CTSI sponsored four full-time UM faculty researchers to attend the immersive, weeklong conference.
A partner of the Eureka Institute since 2015, the Miami CTSI has sent 19 researchers to the program. The 2022 UM cohort included researchers in the fields of pediatrics, neurological surgery, biomedical engineering, and epidemiology. All say the experience transformed their thinking and gave them new energy for their work.
Shathiyah Kulandavelu, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Pediatric Nephrology, who recently published research linking preeclampsia to a gene called GSNOR, says the Eureka program helped her distill her research goals going forward.
“I’m a basic scientist, but I enjoy looking at the bigger picture and knowing the endpoint, which is the human population,” says Dr. Kulandavelu. “This course really emphasized to me that in my research, I always want to start by asking, ‘What is the biggest impact this can have on the human population?’”
Eureka’s faculty mentors provided Dr. Kulandavelu with tools for communicating in teams, including ways to resolve conflict. “It helped me develop myself as a scientist and shape how I interact with people at work and in my personal life. They give you those skills, all in seven days,” she says.
Dr. Kulandavelu still keeps in touch with fellow conference participants who have become trusted colleagues and provided her with feedback as she prepared her first NIH R01 grant.
Early in his career, Juan Pablo de Rivero Vaccari, Ph.D., M.S.B.A, associate professor of neurological surgery at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, developed a monoclonal antibody that can be used to reduce early inflammatory events in central nervous system (CNS) injury and disease. Dr. de Rivero Vaccari and his team have since licensed the technology to a company that is due to go public later this year.
The greatest value of the Eureka experience for Dr. de Rivero Vaccari was the deep sense of connection it fostered among participants. The program reinforced the value of working together toward a common goal, a concept he says he brought back to The Miami Project. “This experience showed me if you can create an environment where everybody feels invested towards a common goal, as part of a team, you will actually make for a more fulfilling experience, and then you’ll go farther,” he says.
As the only biomedical engineer in the group, Courtney Dumont, Ph.D., found herself in the unique position of having already experienced some of the translational processes being covered at the Eureka program. Dr. Dumont’s work explores the use of biomaterials such as stem cells, gene therapies, and nano materials to repair spinal cord injury. As a postdoc, she patented the use of polymers to guide regeneration after spinal cord injury.
For Dr. Dumont, the power of the Eureka experience was in the mentorship provided by the program’s faculty. “I was eager to learn more about advancing all these things I’m developing in the engineering department, applying it to spinal cord injury and learning more on how to get it into patients because there are so many clinical trials available at the Miami Project,” she says.
Meeting with Eureka faculty mentors helped Dr. Dumont develop a plan to refocus her efforts and combat some of the fatigue her team has experienced because of the pandemic. “We delved into how to restructure. Not to just get by, but to work more cohesively and push forward to the next stage.”
The program’s blend of work sessions and social activity was an additional strength for Dr. Dumont. “I felt it was really well-balanced, and there was a great diversity of expertise at the conference in terms of the leadership and the participants,” she says.
Tali Elfassy, Ph.D., MSPH, research assistant professor and epidemiologist in the department of medicine said the Eureka program helped her better understand the translational process from beginning to end. “In the continuum of translational science, I fall on the population science end,” says Dr. Elfassy, who is also a Miami CTSI KL2 graduate. “It was really a huge introduction to a pipeline and the process by which science occurs and eventually makes a population level impact.”
Like her UM colleagues, Dr. Elfassy most appreciated the human connection provided by the experience in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns. “Beyond academics, it was an unbelievable opportunity to connect with colleagues from all over the world; to see the similarities and the differences in our research, to bounce ideas off each other, to take a break from the daily grind of our lives. It really was an inspirational program,” she says.
The emphasis of the Eureka program was on reducing scientific “waste” by prioritizing the human impact of the research from the inception of a research project, says Dr. Elfassy. “As translational medicine scientists, our goal needs to be conducting impactful research that’s going to move the needle and improve health.”