Turning Up the Volume on Research
Strategic hires, core labs, and research support programs help boost the research enterprise
Alberto Bosque, PhD, MBA, was at a crossroads. He’d moved from his Spanish homeland to the United States to complete a postdoctoral fellowship, and he’d started to fulfill one of his life’s wishes: having his own lab.
By Caroline Trent-Gurbuz
“That has always been one of those dreams, [but] I didn’t know where [my lab] was going to be, whether I was going to continue in the States, whether I was going to go back to Spain,” recalls Bosque, whose research focus is HIV/AIDS. “The opportunities that I have in the States are exceptional, and I decided to stay here.”
He built his lab from the ground up, Bosque says, and earned a tenure-track position at the University of Utah, where he had been doing research. But a year later, he made another decision: to uproot his research and move to the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS).
“One of the reasons that I moved my lab … was the environment here,” says Bosque, now assistant professor of microbiology, immunology, and tropical medicine at SMHS. “The other HIV/AIDS researchers in the department, together with investigators at the DC Center for AIDS Research, make for an exceptional community that addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic from multiple perspectives, including basic science, epidemiology, and clinical research.”
Bosque’s attraction to SMHS — its blossoming reputation for research, its effort to remove silos and offer opportunities to both new and established investigators — is emblematic of the school’s growth.
Layer by layer, SMHS leaders such as Robert Miller, PhD, senior associate dean for research, Vivian Gill Distinguished Research Professor, and professor of anatomy and regenerative biology, and Alison Hall, PhD, associate dean for research workforce development and professor of neurology, are building a pre-eminent research institution.
“The research enterprise has grown significantly over the last three years as a result of investment from the school and from the university,” Miller explains.
With the 2015–18 strategic plan as a model, the school has hired more than 40 research faculty with varying degrees of experience and areas of interest. Most fall within three main fields: cancer; neuroscience, including autism; and infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.
Hiring that many new researchers “is very unusual — that’s an enormous institutional commitment,” Hall says. “They are bringing new ideas to GW and new energies to our research groups. It’s really exciting, and we’re trying to do quite a lot to help them be successful here because they’re what makes us strong.”
As Miller adds, an influx of talent is critical to shaping the future of research; the new faculty members act as a catalyst for collaboration across disciplines and can lead current faculty researchers into fresh areas of inquiry. The ultimate goal, he says, is to “increase everybody’s research portfolio” — a mission that has come within reach, thanks to the unprecedented increase in both the volume of grant applications and the number of grant awards. Between 2015 and 2017, for example, new proposals jumped from 210 to 334, and new awards rose from 53 to 95.
“Research funding at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences has gone up dramatically,” Hall says. “The amount of federal funding has gone up, and the amount of non-federal funding has also gone up. The federal funding helps to pay for researchers’ salaries; the non-federal funding forms key elements in supporting our research programs.”
Some researchers, she adds, bring their own financial support, while others start to apply for grants once they’ve settled in. “GW invests money in them to help them start up a laboratory, and the investigators need to take their ideas out and gain support for research to continue.”
Although the increase in funding is impressive — total growth from 2016 to 2017 hovers around 35 percent — Miller cautions that the figure is less significant than the actual work. “I think what’s more important than thinking just about dollars is to think about the impact and the effect that it’s having on the school, which is to increase the reputational benefit of the school and of the university.”
Key to that reputation building is the school’s support in three areas critical to research: education (see sidebars below on the GW-SPARC Program and the newly re-organized PhD programs within the Institute of Biomedical Sciences), infrastructure, and mentorship.
Within the last three years, the university has merged and grown its cancer programs to create the GW Cancer Center, which boasts more than a dozen lab spaces and state-of-the-art equipment, and has continued to invest in core facilities, such as the Research Pathology Core Laboratory, the Nanofabrication and Imaging Center, and the Flow Cytometry Core Facility; SMHS has planned future investment in bioinformatics and small animal imaging, among other areas.
Aside from providing the physical space and the necessary resources, SMHS offers guidance and career support.
“I would say that key to the success … is mentoring,” Hall says. “Graduate students and undergraduates need mentoring to figure out what to do next year, to think about how to begin a medical or research career. But I think we also need to recognize that junior faculty need mentoring [too]. It’s key that the institution help people become successful; draw upon their smarts and their energy, and we really need to mentor people to be effective.”
Nikki Posnack, PhD ’09, for example, credits her research success to her mentors: Narine Sarvazyan, PhD, professor of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS; Norman Lee, PhD, professor of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS; and Matthew Kay, PE, DSc, professor of biomedical engineering and chair for research and graduate affairs in the GW School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“I was really well supported by my mentors, and that allowed me to develop my own research program,” says Posnack, who also serves as assistant professor of pediatrics.
Posnack is based at the Children’s National Heart Institute at SMHS’ clinical partner Children’s National Health System (Children’s National), with which the school shares several links, including the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National, supported by a $23 million Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the National Institutes of Health.
Prestigious high-dollar collaborative awards like the CTSA, are also on the rise, with SMHS proving a valuable partner for other research institutions. The school and the University of Georgia, for instance, were awarded a $10 million bioinformatics grant to develop computational and informatics tools, and Children’s National and the GW Institute for Neuroscience received a multimillion-dollar program project grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to support research in pediatric dysphagia, a feeding and swallowing disorder.
Children’s National is also particularly fertile ground for Posnack, who directs the cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology lab; her laboratory is studying chemicals that leach from plastic medical devices and their potential impact on the cardiovascular health of pediatric patients.
“Within the Children’s National Heart Institute, we are able to collect patient samples and work side by side with clinicians,” she says. “This allows us to better understand clinical concerns and also aids in the translation of our research findings to the pediatric population.”
Her research career, she adds, developed naturally, thanks to collaborations with local universities and the Food and Drug Administration, and her ability to find funding.
“I had a lot of flexibility to develop an independent research program that I was passionate about, and [GW was] very supportive of that,” she explains.
Although the research enterprise is still maturing, Miller and Hall say, the progress of the last three years is encouraging. When Miller first arrived at SMHS in 2014, he had a vision in mind, with one main goal: “that GW [would] become recognized as a world center … as a place where the best science gets done.”
With the implementation of new strategies and the investments in people, infrastructure, and education, SMHS is well on its way — with boastworthy growth.
Lighting the SPARC
The philosophy behind the George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) approach to research is simple: Diversity is the key to excellence.
“If you have the same people with the same backgrounds asking the same questions, you really don’t make an effective research program,” explains Alison Hall, PhD, associate dean for research workforce development and professor of neurology at SMHS.
Expanding opportunities for potential researchers and enhancing diversity in the biomedical research community is essential — which is why SMHS, in partnership with the GW Cancer Center, is launching the GW Summer Program Advancing Research on Cancer (GW-SPARC).
“GW-SPARC will not only expose participants to cutting-edge research and contemporary cancer research techniques, but will also help foster their understanding of health disparities and the impact of cancer in different communities,” says Hall, who serves as co-director of the program. “Most importantly, this program will help prepare diverse students for research careers, leading to discoveries that will improve our future.”
The program is open to undergraduates from groups underrepresented in biomedical science, such as those from certain racial and ethnic groups or with disabilities or specific financial disadvantages, and is designed to provide participants with a hands-on approach to cancer research. Students will embark on closely mentored research in laboratories focused on three areas — cancer immunology and immunotherapy; cancer biology, namely targeted therapies and epigenetics; and cancer engineering and technology — and attend weekly workshops and seminars. GW-SPARC will also feature a book club focused on the impact of cancer in diverse communities. At the end of the summer, students will present their research in a scientific poster session.
“Our hope is that graduates from this summer program will go on to become active, motivated researchers, ready to solve today’s most pressing problems for those who need it most,” says co-director of the program Edward Seto, PhD, associate center director for basic sciences at the GW Cancer Center, King Fahd Professor of Cancer Biology, and professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine at SMHS.
GW-SPARC will welcome its first cohort this summer, and is already planning for the next summer’s crop of students.
“Our goal is to support these students in their completion of a STEM bachelor’s degree and support them in their goals for graduate work,” Hall says. Achieving that, she adds, will boost the diversity among the pool of students pursuing biomedical research PhDs. “That’s the intention of this program, and I hope graduates will join our PhD and MD programs. We hope to add programs like this at GW in the future in order to accomplish our goal of diversifying scientific research.”
Creativity, Innovation, and Discovery
As the research enterprise at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) grows, so too does one of its core components: the PhD programs at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences (IBS).
The programs, explains Alison Hall, PhD, associate dean for research workforce development and professor of neurology at SMHS, are critical for attracting young talent to SMHS and providing them the support to pursue a career in research. To increase both the volume and the quality of applicants, and to align with research strengths, SMHS has reshaped what’s available.
Currently, students can earn a PhD in three main areas: microbiology and immunology; biochemistry and systems; and molecular medicine. Within molecular medicine are tracks in cancer biology, pharmacology and physiology, and neuroscience.
In assessing the curriculum, IBS graduate program directors identified common foundational courses, as well as courses for each area of study, designed to enhance students’ research potential.
“There’s a strong interest in interdisciplinary training nationwide, and we are absolutely encouraging students [to develop an interdisciplinary underpinning],” says Hall, adding that the program update is also enhancing “opportunities for very specific training in each of the degrees.”
In all the programs, PhD students take common, interdisciplinary core courses in the fundamentals of biomedical science, and career and professional development, as they rotate through different laboratories of interest.
“In the spring of the first year, there are PhD-specific courses,” Hall explains. “Some of them are very new. They’re required courses … so that [students] really understand contemporary ideas in cancer biology or in genomics and precision medicine. We encourage students to tailor their courses for their interests, such as neuroscience and cancer, or pharmacology and genomics.”
Following course work and rotations, PhD students prepare a fellowship-style grant proposal outlining their original experimental design and analysis for advancement to candidacy. “This requires a lot of creativity,” Hall says. “It’s really [making them perform the tasks of] a functioning scientist.”
These students, she adds, are particularly important for research institutions such as SMHS. “PhD students are the workforce for research discovery,” she explains. They “have the time and the energy and the newness to take on innovative, creative, and difficult questions. The place that you find the open-eyed questioning is among the graduate students.”