Master Classes: Mentoring a Generation


These days, it's not enough to be brilliant, discover new knowledge, and publish it. You really need to go the distance--to understand fully a discovery's value to society, to be able to work comfortably with people in other disciplines, and to make something of it. And that holds true whether you've just produced a piece of a more elaborate biological puzzle, a disease marker, a therapeutic target, an algorithm that extracts new meaning from population data, or an entirely original idea that upsets current thinking.

Thus, exposure to transdisciplinary expertise is the common denominator behind the suite of training programs (see below) launched by the Institute of Musculoskeletal Health and Arthritis (IMHA) under the auspices of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research ( CIHR) Strategic Training Initiatives in Health Research. Mentors from complementary fields provide graduate and undergraduate students, as well as postdocs, with a unique learning experience, an opportunity to acquire cross-disciplinary skill sets--and, ultimately, the rare ability to frame questions and interpret results from the combined perspectives of a hands-on clinician and a skilled research scientist. The science that will come from the trainees who enter Canada's pool of research investigators will be the program's enduring legacy.

Alberta Provincial CIHR Training Program in Bone and Joint Health

Combining the strengths of the Universities of Alberta and Calgary, as well as the resources of their respective urban health regions, this particular program focuses on osteoarthritis, common spinal disorders, and joint injuries. "Quite frankly," says director Dr. Ron Zernicke, "it's one of the best concentrations of expertise in the world, and we want all types of health professionals to apply to get that transdisciplinary exposure."

Speaking about the program, Doug Gross, a physical therapy-trained Ph.D. student, says, "The opportunity to work in another laboratory is a great idea, particularly in the case of interuniversity collaborations so students can be exposed to the other school." And, according to Smaranda Fagarasanu, a physician-trained Ph.D. student in rehab science, the " Training Program in Bone and Joint Health is a unique opportunity to work with other researchers and mentors interested in the same area. Being kept up-to-date in such a vast field is very useful."

Cell Signaling in Mucosal Inflammation and Pain

The Cell Signaling program includes 17 mentors at five Canadian universities (Dalhousie, Ottawa, McMaster, Toronto, and British Columbia) and merges dentistry, medicine, and biomedical engineering into a collaborative network. "We aim to combine trainees from laboratory sciences and human investigation," says director Dr. Richard Ellen, "in an intellectual crucible--a cell signaling 'chat room,' if you will--that promotes collaboration across CIHR's pillars of endeavor." And to judge by N. Jack Fairbank's enthusiastic testimonial, the program lives up to its billing. Provided with a Web-based electronic forum, the doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering at Halifax's Dalhousie University found "mentors and trainees who possess valuable insight into relevant inflammatory cascades and cytokine quantification techniques." He particularly appreciated receiving "Web site exposure" and the opportunity to communicate with researchers around the world--and, not least, he welcomed the financial support that allowed him to continue his postgraduate studies "with much-appreciated security."

Irina Virinov at the University of Toronto's department of laboratory medicine and pathobiology also thought that the Web site was "fantastic" and was grateful for the funding. She specifically noted "more flexibility at the lab level, since there are more funds available to try out new techniques, kits, and reagents."

NORTH (Network for Oral Research Training and Health)

Although few in number, Canada's oral-health researchers are regarded as international leaders in such areas as the biology of connective and mineralized tissues, oral infectious diseases, biomaterials, neuroscience, and pain. The trouble is, the current generation of scientific leaders is approaching retirement, and there is an acute shortage of researchers who could follow in their path. Part of the problem is that research doesn't seem terribly alluring for DDS/DDM graduates with crushing tuition debts and the prospect of earning money in clinical practice.

To counter this trend, the NORTH program integrates all 10 schools of dentistry and allows students to gain access to summer research projects across Canada. One of the program's participants enjoyed the exposure to new things, but his "personal interest in clinical sciences" remained the priority.

Lisa Braun, at the University of Saskatchewan, had little exposure to dental research prior to the program and enjoyed the experience enough to say, "It has definitely become an option for me, although I haven't officially decided on a career in research." By contrast, Elena Baltcheva at the University of Montreal was definitely 'bitten' by the research bug. "My research experience with NORTH really opened my eyes. After this project I began to read dental journals. I'm thinking very seriously about doing an M.Sc. after my DDS."

The Bone Centre: Skeletal Health Research

This particular program is delivered within the context of The Bone Centre--a virtual center for research excellence at McGill University that unites the efforts of a highly productive research community at McGill and neighboring universities. "The whole thrust these days is toward transdisciplinary, cross-institutional science," says McGill's Dr. Janet Henderson (who co-directs with senior researcher Dr. David Goltzman), "so we've ensured there would be a mix of mentors in such areas as tissue-engineering, skeletal development, bone cancer, epidemiology, molecular genetics, and therapeutics of osteoporosis. ... We have a continuum from the bench to the bedside and beyond."

McGill's Gaoping Chen jumped at the opportunity to receive training in the Calcium Research Laboratory with Dr. Goltzman and felt that the program met all his expectations, especially in hormonal regulators of skeletal development. "The program is excellent and definitely of great value to my career." Equally enthusiastic were Gladys Valverde Franco (who suggested there be more diverse exposure through seminars by prominent investigators) and Anik Chevrier at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal, who felt the "mentoring aspect of the program has been of great importance to me. I believe all scholars could benefit from increased interaction with researchers experienced in skeletal health."

MENTOR: Mobility and Posture Difficulties

A collaborative effort of Université de Montréal, l'École polytechnique, and l'École de technologie supérieure, the MENTOR program brings together 30 scientists with expertise in basic science, laboratory testing, clinical practice, and epidemiology. MENTOR targets graduate students and postdoctoral candidates in pure science, engineering, and health science (medicine, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, kinesiology, anthropokinetics, and nursing) who are interested in osteoarthritis, musculoskeletal deformity, and trauma or neuromuscular deficits. Trainees will have two program directors from complementary disciplines, intern in one of their co-directors' labs or clinics, participate in workshops, and take a course on transdisciplinary research studies.

Training for the Future

"CIHR's Strategic Training Initiatives in Health Research is really a giant job-creation program," says IMHA scientific director Dr. Cy Frank, "in keeping with Industry Canada's national innovation agenda." He continues, "Clinician-scientists are extremely valuable workers in many different aspects of society. We're really just scratching the surface. Once the training programs are better established, we'll need to do more front-end work at the undergraduate and high school levels to make more people aware of research as a worthwhile career path. I think there's a wealth of potential out there that we're just beginning to tap into."

The CIHR is a sponsor of Next Wave Canada.

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