Clinical and translational science training program welcomes seven scholars

Penn State graduate students with varied research interests including sudden infant death syndrome, aging, childhood obesity, health disparities and leukemia have started a year of training in clinical and translational sciences. The TL1 Predoctoral Training Program is a year-long opportunity offered by Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute to teach the next generation of scientists the skills to move research out of the laboratory to benefit patients in the healthcare system.

The National Institutes of Health-funded TL1 program supports predoctoral graduate and medical students seeking advanced full-time training in clinical and translational research. TL1 scholars expand their major course of study by completing a dual-title doctorate in clinical and translational sciences, a graduate certificate in translational science, or a master’s degree in public health sciences. TL1 scholars are selected each year through a competitive application process. 

“One of the major goals of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute is to foster the development of a well-trained translational science workforce,” Gail Thomas, co-director of the TL1 program at Hershey, said. “The TL1 program addresses this goal by helping students in the early stages of their research careers acquire the skills and knowledge needed to become successful clinical and translational scientists. We anticipate that graduates of our TL1 program will be poised to advance discovery across the translational research spectrum.”                  

The program is highly customizable. Each TL1 scholar creates a tailored curriculum focused on key areas of emphasis, including epidemiology, biostatistics, bioinformatics, bioethics and regulatory science, experimental design and interpretation, and scientific communication. Scholars also receive training in translational science tools, including the i2b2 data discovery tool and REDCap secure electronic data capture tool, both supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute. 

“We are really pleased to welcome our new TL1 scholars for 2018-2019,” Thomas said. “We look forward to working with this diverse, highly motivated group of students as they begin their translational research training. Selected from programs in medicine, biomedical sciences, kinesiology and nutritional sciences, they are eager to add translational science competencies to their research portfolios.”    

Seven students started the program in August and will finish next July. Funding includes a 12-month stipend, 60 percent tuition (fall and spring semesters) and travel support. For detailed eligibility, visit the program website here. Applications for the 2019-2020 program will be accepted beginning in January 2019. 

Connie Rogers is co-director of the program at University Park.

TL1 program scholars for 2018-2019 are Ethan Canty, Gabrielle Dillon, Sally Eagleton, Yi-Hsuan Liu , Stephan Maman, Nicole Reigh and Kyle Sundberg. Their research interests are:

Assessing SIDS risk factors

Ethan Canty is in the MD/MPH program with a concentration in global health. He became aware of the TL1 program after a friend completed a related summer program called the Translational Science Fellowship.

“I was encouraged by his enthusiasm about the program,” Canty said. “I want to gain the skills and expertise to create my own research projects to eventually assess global public health programs. I believe the TL1 program will provide me with the skills to perform clinical, translational, and public health research in the fields of my choosing so that I can have a career that encompasses both clinical and research-based public health work. “

Canty is studying sudden infant death syndrome, commonly known as SIDS. 

“I will be conducting a project to determine if risk factors for SIDS can be adequately and appropriately assessed using the electronic health record and if it would be feasible for providers to use the record to assess infants for SIDS risk factors in their homes,” he said.

He is working towards a master’s degree in public health while in the TL1 program. 

Changes that predict heart disease

Gabrielle Dillon is a doctoral student in the dual-title kinesiology and clinical and translational sciences program.

“I hope to enhance my career by developing open-minded critical thinking skills that allow me to translate my research effectively,” Dillon said. “A better understanding of statistics, epidemiology and data interpretation will assist me in translating my work beyond the bench. Additionally, I would like to fully develop the skill of scientific communication. These skills will be essential for my training as an engaged member of the scientific research community.”

Dillon’s research involves reproducibility of increases in blood pressure, heart rate and nervous system activity when performing a handgrip exercise. The level of these increases can be a predictor of heart disease. By showing the increase in these metrics in individuals at different time periods, data can be better interpreted between patient populations. 

Dillon said it was an interest in the clinical aspects of research that led her towards translational science.

“I found myself interested in the clinical aspects of research which has prompted me to pursue the TL1 program,” she said. “The TL1 program provides the opportunity to link my desires to perform scientific research at the mechanistic level and the clinical level.”

Food insecurity and food value

Sally Eagleton is a dual-title doctoral student in the nutritional sciences and clinical and translational sciences programs. 

“The TL1 program is a unique training experience that I saw as an opportunity to apply the substantive knowledge that I have gained in nutritional sciences during my first two years at Penn State to a translational research area that I am passionate about,” Eagleton said. “Having education/training in clinical and translational sciences will not only put me in a position to contribute to the evidence-base for developing successful interventions to prevent childhood obesity but will provide me with the tools necessary to implement.”

She will examine the relationship between not having consistent access to nutritious food — called food insecurity — and the reinforcing value of food among low-income, preschool-aged children. The reinforcing value of food measures how hard a person is willing to work for food. She will test whether two weeks of daily consumption of a high-calorie snack food increases or decreases how hard a child will work for food.

“Food deprivation may increase the reinforcing value of food making food-insecure children more likely to overeat when food is available, particularly if those foods are well-liked, high-calorie foods like cookies or cupcakes,” she said.

Diet and health outcomes

Yi-Hsuan Liu is a second-year doctoral student in the dual-title program in nutritional sciences and clinical and translational sciences. 

“I am honored to be named a TL1 scholar this year and appreciate the opportunities to help me achieve my goals during graduate training to advance and deepen my understanding of the relationship between nutrition and health in human as well as translational techniques and skills,” she said. “Ultimately, I would like to pursue a career in translational science with a focus in nutrition, to explore evidence-based recommendations for healthy aging and disease prevention.” 

Liu’s research focuses on understanding the association between diet and health outcomes in older adults. 

“Population aging is a world-wide trend with significant public health impact,” she said. “Therefore, I believe that identifying factors that are associated with healthy aging process would be valuable for translational science research in the field of human aging. Nutrition and diet play important roles in disease prevention and could thus be key factors during the aging process.”

Disparities in anti-nausea medicine use 

Stephan Maman is a medical student at the College of Medicine who is taking the year off to complete a master’s of public health sciences. He plans to train in anesthesiology and perioperative medicine, while also becoming an independent investigator in health system sciences with a special focus on disparities.

“The TL1 program is an excellent step toward becoming an independent investigator because it supports young scientists aspiring to achieve a career in scientific research by providing academic, intellectual and financial assistance,” he said. 

Maman’s project looks to address disparities in the administration of anti-nausea medications before surgery by building a model that uses anesthesia data and shows a graphical “scorecard.” Through this, providers could determine if all patients who need the medication are receiving it, as opposed to just to certain groups of patients.

“Patients are less likely to receive anti-nausea medication prior to surgery if they are from a ZIP code with a low median income or if they are insured through Medicaid,” he said. “This disparity exists despite anti-nausea medications being relatively inexpensive at any hospital, and that administering this medication prior to surgery undoubtedly reduces the chance of developing nausea and vomiting after surgery.”

He became interested in clinical and translational science after watching his father struggle getting the health care he needed. 

“Millions like [my father] in the United States are not able to access basic medical care; and even those with access are often adversely affected as a result of social determinants of health," said Maman. "After witnessing the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of health disparities, I developed a strong desire to influence the current health system. I realized that in order to make meaningful changes to our system, I must first understand what drives these disparities and then work to promote equitable delivery of care at the system level.”

Helping children eat right

Nicole Reigh is a doctoral student in the dual-title nutritional sciences and clinical and translational sciences programs. 

“This training program and the dual-title degree will allow me to better understand how research is interpreted into policy and how it is used in clinical settings, so that the interventions I develop may be more feasible and effective for a wider population than is typically examined in a laboratory setting,” Reigh said. 

Her research project is testing an intervention that is designed to teach children how to eat an appropriate amount of food. 

“The regulation of food intake is critical for the maintenance of healthy body weight,” she said. “The goal of this study is to teach children, through a virtual reality game, what it feels like to be hungry, what it feels like to be full, why to eat only when hungry, why to stop eating when full, and some reasons why we might be tempted not to pay attention to what our bodies tell us about hunger and fullness.”

Reigh said the TL1 program will be important in her future career.  

“By receiving training in clinical and translational sciences, I will be better prepared to create messages, interventions and strategies to target childhood obesity. This training will allow me to better interpret research and analyze its generalizability to a larger population.”

Targeting Leukemia cells

Kyle Sundberg is a dual-title doctoral student in the biomedical sciences and clinical and translational sciences programs. 

“I was interested in the program as soon as I heard about it because my interest and motivations are based in advancing medicine and extending human healthspan,” he said. “I want to do good science in the lab and to contribute to turning what we learn into real-world improvements for both individuals and society.”

Sundberg is studying how leukemia cells survive during chemotherapy and how to better target them. 

“New and more effective therapies are being developed, but cancer cells can still be resistant to them,” he said. “By understanding how this happens, we will be able to combine multiple therapies or develop new ones to improve patient survival.”

He plans to devote his career to uncovering the mechanisms of aging and age-related diseases and how to combat them.

“I want to engage with and learn about multiple levels of translational science, including creating and managing intellectual property, clinical trials, policy and clinical work,” he said. “While I know that I want my future to involve translational science, I can't know what positions or opportunities I will have, so I want to prepare as much as possible to make a difference.”

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s mission is to help accelerate discoveries to benefit human health. To learn more of its programs and support to Penn State scientists, visit ctsi.psu.edu.