Tag Archives: science communication

Translating “Translational”

16 Jun

UMCCTS LogoYesterday marked my six month anniversary working for the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. It’s been six months of challenges and opportunities, lots of learning and adjustments, and many experiences that I both expected and didn’t. All in all, a good, positive change.

Since moving from the UMass Med School’s library to the UMCCTS, lots of people have asked me, “What are you doing now?” Truth be told, many of these same people had no idea what I was doing before, but at least they think that they know what librarians do and I let it go at that. But since becoming an evaluator for the UMCCTS, I find I have to explain two concepts; (1) the role of an evaluator and (2) translational science.

Last night, I attended Science Cafe Woo, a monthly gathering of folks in Worcester where local scientists can talk to the public about what they research. I’ve written about Science Cafe Woo here a couple of times before (An Infectious Dialogue; Sustainability: It Mean’s More than “Tit for Tat”) because it’s always a highlight of my month in terms of learning interesting science, plus I’m a strong advocate for science communication and the promotion of scientific literacy. As noted in an excellent article by Boston Globe reporter, Sacha Pfeiffer, over the past decades, government funding for scientific research and development has steadily fallen from 9.1% in the late 1960s to a paltry 3.6% today. Efforts like Science Cafe Woo, the Science Cafe movement overall, and programs like the one at my own institution that help scientists deliver a comprehensible message to different stakeholders, from corporate donors to the public tax payer, are essential if we are to be successful in our efforts to advance science, eradicate diseases, and reach our fullest potential as human beings.

And thus, there I was at last night’s Science Cafe Woo, ready to learn about the work of Glenn Gaudette, PhD, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Gaudette’s talk entitled, How Science Can Mend a Broken Heart, was a fascinating mini-lecture on the anatomy of the heart, cardiology, pluripotent stem cells, and … TRANSLATIONAL SCIENCE. It’s the latter that made me say to my spouse when I got home, “I wish everyone who wonders what that term, translational science, means had been at Science Cafe tonight.”

Dr. Gaudette talked about his research in the Myocardial Regeneration Lab at WPI. There, he and his students discover ways to get stem cells to become myocardial (heart) cells and then how to implant these cells into damaged heart muscle, encouraging new growth and healing that without such a treatment, is impossible. In other words, when a person suffers a heart attack, some portion of their heart muscle is damaged. It eventually scars over and the heart as a whole is less efficient in its business of pumping blood throughout the body. Myocardial muscle cells don’t regenerate on their own, thus the damage remains. The theory behind Dr. Gaudette’s work, then, is if we can learn how to induce the growth of new cells in the heart, we can help a damaged heart heal, not just scar.

The exercise physiologist in me LOVED this talk. I’ve studied the heart and cardiac rehabilitation enough to understand how monumental such a new treatment could be for the millions of Americans who suffer from heart disease. It’s such a cool idea and if/when it reaches its fullest potential, becoming a clinical procedure, it will be truly amazing.

And this, in a nutshell, is translational science:

  • Dr. Gaudette and his colleagues have an idea; if we can get stem cells to become myocardial cells and deliver them into damaged heart muscle, they’ll grow into new, healthy heart muscle.
  • They work in their respective labs to figure out the problems; growing the cells, delivering the cells to the tissue, seeing if the delivered cells actually grow into new cells.
  • They come up with a novel concept to more effectively get the cells to the heart muscle; the VitaSuture.
  • They go out and talk about their ideas and findings to investors, funding agencies, and the like, trying to secure the money needed to manufacture and test this product. (There is no money in academia.)
  • They talk to regulatory agencies like the FDA about their idea, about their product, and about how to actually test it in human beings.
  • They get squashed. Stem cells are SUCH a red flag, they’re told, especially when you’re talking about putting them on a person’s heart.
  • They get back up. They think of ways to lower the risk. They make other proposals. How about regenerating ligaments?
  • They test this idea out on animals and find some success.
  • They go back to the regulatory agency with their new proposal.
  • Squashed again.
  • They get back up again. Other ideas. Even less risky.
  • And on it goes… (Read a TERRIFIC piece on this process in WPI’s spring issue of Research.)

That, my readers, is translational science. It’s getting from an idea, to success in non-human models, to successful testing in humans, to what ultimately becomes clinical practice. Translational science centers, like UMCCTS, exist to help identify and remove the barriers in this lengthy, winding, often inefficient process.

And my job … it’s to evaluate the different programs and core research centers we sponsor, so that we can determine how well we’re doing towards bringing down some of those barriers and hurdles. It’s also to disseminate the findings and the work of translational scientists at UMMS, so that our stakeholders better know and understand what we’re doing.

This morning when I came into work and told my boss all about last night’s talk, he immediately asked, “Is he working with anyone here?” and we began to talk about clinical researchers doing science here that might collaborate really well with Dr. Gaudette and his colleagues across town. Surely, there’s some follow-up to be done.

To me, these are the most interesting, exciting, and fulfilling aspects about working in a scientific research environment. There are just so many fascinating stories and I get to hear them, share them, and sometimes be part of them. Translating translation. Everyone should be so fortunate in his or her work.

Thanks to Science Cafe Woo for continuing to encourage scientists to talk to the public about their work, to Dr. Gaudette and his colleagues and students at WPI for the work they’re doing, and to the UMCCTS and all of our members who keep striving to bring the breakthroughs of science and medicine to the world.

Sustainability: It Means More than “Tit for Tat”

19 Nov

Two innovative and inspired doctoral students at my University saw a problem and decided to do something about it. There is too often a disconnect between scientists and the public. The public struggles to understand what scientists are doing and unfortunately relies too often upon unreliable and unfounded sources for explanations. Scientists, for their part, do a fairly poor job of communicating what they do in a manner that makes sense to the average person on the street. To help address this gap here in our community of Worcester, these students secured sponsorship from NOVA and last summer started Science Cafe Woo. Their tagline? “Come listen to what scientists do while having a fun evening too!”

For the past several months, I have taken in the fun, sitting in the booths at the Nu Cafe in Worcester and listening to scientists from our local universities tell fascinating tales of how they spend their days. It is a wonderful opportunity for the community to gather in a non-academic setting, a non-research environment, to listen to, ask questions of, discuss with, and even debate people who often do work on the community’s dime (lots of government-funded research happens in our community). At the same time, the scientists get the chance to share their work with the community; to take on the challenge of explaining it in a way that non-scientists will get. It’s truly a win-win. AND it’s incredibly popular. I’ve arrived on more than one night to find it standing room only. For me, the entire experience – from the students’ initiative to start the Cafe, to the researchers’ willingness to talk, to the community’s positive response – has been a joy to observe and take part in.

This month, the featured speaker was Dr. John Baker, Associate Research Professor in Biology at Clark University. Dr. Baker teaches in the Environmental Science major at Clark, a nationally-recognized program that produces graduates who are “working is such wide range of areas as environmental regulations of pollution, water and wetlands conservation, clean technology, hazardous waste cleanup, public health protection, environmental planning, field and laboratory studies of endangered species and conservation planning.” (program website) His talk was called, “Ecology, Evolution, and the Most Misunderstood Word in the World.” The word? Sustainable 

This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that "NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted".

This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted”.

Sustainable forestry. Sustainable design. Sustainable agriculture. Sustainable energy. The word appears in many places and many contexts, and is generally accepted as the behavior where you consciously replace what you use as you use it, so that whatever it is that you’ve used can continue. Cut down a tree, plant a tree. Even Steven. Tit for tat. Except, according to Dr. Baker’s argument (and a pretty darned persuasive one, in my opinion), such behavior is not sustainable. It is not “sustainability” as sustainability is defined. 

One example that he provided made his point clear to me; when you cut down a tree in a forest, you take much more than the mere carbon-offset that it provided. Replace the tree with another and yes, you replace its role here, but what you don’t – what you can’t – replace are all of the other disturbances that occur in the ecosystem by removing that tree. Dr. Baker explained that when a tree naturally dies, it falls to the ground where, over time, it decays and is reabsorbed into the soil, giving to the soil the nutrients it requires to really keep the forest sustainable. Disturbing the ecosystem of the forest is what cutting trees does. It changes the system entirely. Maybe we won’t see these changes for tens of thousands of millions of years, but to suggest that our practice of replacing trees is really a practice of sustainability, Dr. Baker argued, is false. 

“I’m not a fatalist, I’m a realist,” he said. It may well be a hopeless endeavor that we’re attempting, this whole “save the planet” venture, but the professor’s point – the one that I took from his lecture, anyway – was that we don’t do ourselves any good by lying to ourselves through talk and behavior(s) that claim we’re doing something that we are really not doing at all.

In my experience as an embedded librarian, I hear a lot of talk and questions regarding the sustainability of this kind of work. I couldn’t help but think about this tonight as I took in what Dr. Baker was saying. I wonder if the role is being seen akin to a tree in our library forests – send us out and replace us with another librarian in the library. Even Steven. Give us one new job, take away one we used to do. Tit for tat. But just like the trees and the forest described above, is this really addressing the issue of sustainability? Other staff may well provide the librarian equivalent of carbon-offsets (on paper), but in the ecology of the library, is that all that needs to be replaced? I find the questions fascinating. I’m not sure if the forest metaphor applies to the library, but I do think that thinking of the bigger system – the ecology of the library – is a worthwhile pursuit. It may yield some insight and answers for us as we try to move forward in this arena.

Similarly, it’s interesting to think about this in the context of how the librarian and libraries have been replaced in our educational and healthcare systems, overall. What have we been replaced with? Open databases, journal articles at the desktop, Google (I’m positive that someone is thinking “Google”) and gadgets. Is it an even swap? Does the overarching goal of solid biomedical research and safe healthcare practice suffer in these trades or do they disturb something bigger in the evolution and ecology of our “environment”? What do you think? Can we make a stronger argument for our value when we think of the bigger picture? I’d love to hear what others have to say. I hope you’ll comment below.