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From Rat to Man: Making the Jump From Basic Science to Clinical Research


Think you need an M.D. to become involved in a clinical research career? Not so!

Even someone like me, who has a background in basic behavioral science, can work in clinical research! I earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I used rats to investigate dopaminergic mechanisms underlying food reinforcement. As a postdoc at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I continued my studies on dopamine, but shifted my attention to its involvement in the behavioral effects of drugs like cocaine in animals such as rats, mice, and knockout mice. Although my experiences in basic animal research were rewarding, I felt I was too far removed from the "human condition" and wanted to do research that could more directly affect (and hopefully help) people. I also thought that a background that included a clinical research component would add to my marketability when it came to finding a "real" job.

Initially, I thought that it was too late in my career to make such a big change--that I had to have experience working with human subjects in graduate school. Fortunately, there are many clinical postdoctoral training programs that don't require direct previous experience. In fact, their goal is to teach you how to be a good clinical researcher. The Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit (BPRU) of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine is one such a place.

The postdoctoral fellows at BPRU come from a variety of backgrounds: clinical psychology, counseling psychology, and basic experimental psychology. Being a postdoc at BPRU has given me an incredible opportunity to balance my basic science background with clinical research experience. I've been involved with all aspects of clinical research and am a co-investigator on several concurrent studies investigating stimulants, sedatives, and opiates. Some of these studies are aimed at studying the underlying mechanisms of drug abuse whereas others focus on potential pharmacotherapies. Other postdocs are involved with smoking studies, alcohol studies, and drug treatment (e.g., voucher incentive) studies.

As a clinical postdoc, I've learned not only how to plan and run clinical research projects, but also how to manage those projects and the numerous people associated with them. My duties are varied and range from supervising the research/data assistants who collect the data to coordinating the efforts of the pharmacy, nursing, and medical staff, principle investigators, and study volunteers. I also correspond with the Institutional Review Board to make sure our study protocols meet the necessary ethical criteria. Although juggling all of these issues can be demanding and at times stressful (such as during the recent highly publicized temporary suspension of clinical research on our campus), working in a clinical environment has allowed me to develop my interpersonal and communication skills to a level that I never would have achieved in a purely basic science setting.

In addition to being involved with BPRU clinical research protocols, I've also gotten involved with several pharmaceutical company studies and have acted as the clinical research coordinator on those projects. In some cases these research opportunities arose from a joint venture between BPRU and a pharmaceutical company in the interest of furthering research, such as testing the abuse liability of a novel compound. In other cases, a pharmaceutical company may have a contract with BPRU to perform studies as part their clinical trials, such as testing a potential pharmacotherapy for drug abuse. Although there is a lot of paperwork involved with these studies, I've learned a great deal about how pharmaceutical company research is organized and how their administrations work.

How can one be successful in clinical research? I believe the keys to success in any profession lie in two truths that I try follow. First, if you don't know the answer, ask someone--your time is much better spent in things other than reinventing the wheel. Second, develop good time management skills and be organized with your time, your projects, and your paperwork.

I feel that adding clinical research experience to my background has allowed me to expand of my career options. There are, of course, the standard careers of academia or industry. Academia typically has a more flexible schedule and allows greater individual research freedom. However, it's a publish or perish world and to get published, you need dollars--grant dollars. Industry tends to have a more structured research environment, but the pay and benefits can be better and resources are available without the stress of having to apply for grant money. There are also some nontraditional careers, such as working for a clinical research organization, where clinical research personnel are contracted out to various institutions or companies who are conducting clinical research. Other nontraditional fields include science administration (e.g., human subjects review boards, resident experts for the Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health), science policy, or science writing. These careers depend on a strong science background, but are one (or more) steps removed from hands-on research.

Although clinical research initially seemed far removed from my original research direction, I now feel competent as a clinical researcher. In some ways, these experiences have even helped me better appreciate how clinical science builds on knowledge from basic animal research. My basic science background has proven to be an asset rather than a problem--the move to clinical research has given me a broad, and somewhat unique, research perspective.

If interest and curiosity are your driving forces, then don't let a lack of experience stop you! There are always opportunities to learn new techniques--and a new subject population.