By Shana R. Spindler, PhD
Dr. Maya Lodish
Dr. Joan Han
The path from graduate student to tenured faculty is pretty straightforward: a doctoral degree leads to postdoctoral research and finally to an assistant professor position. If all goes well, you enter a tenured career. Grants such as the K-99 provide the means for a graceful growth into an independent scientist. But what if this is not your course? What if you have completed a medical degree, have spent three years in residency, and have finished a successful subspecialty fellowship?
Since 2009, the NICHD has supported the Assistant Clinical Investigator (ACI) program, a unique opportunity to help clinical fellows etch a path toward independent clinical research. Open to both NIH and non-NIH clinical fellows, the ACI program is a highly desired, competitive program that provides resources and funding for budding clinical scientists.
To date, two clinical fellows, Drs. Joan Han and Maya Lodish, have participated in the program for nearly two years. Two more fellows, Drs. Erin Wolff and Angela Delaney, are new to the group as of this July.
Ask either Joan or Maya about their thoughts on being an ACI, and you will quickly learn that they view this program as critical to their success as clinical researchers. "The ACI program is filling a need to provide a bridge between fellowship years and being an independent investigator," says Maya, "It's giving me protected research time and funding to be able to focus on developing into a physician scientist."
Not only does this program bridge the gap in training, ACIs directly link the laboratory research to the clinic in a multidisciplinary setting. Maya, for example, has been in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute working on using tyrosine-kinase inhibitors in thyroid cancer therapeutics.
Having this program at the NIH provides benefits that cannot be found elsewhere. "The NIH Clinical Research Center is ideal for conducting clinical research, particularly for an early-career researcher who has minimal independent funding, since the cost of patient visits and testing is covered (for the most part) by the intramural research programs," says Joan.
Beyond the clinic, ACIs are exposed to valuable mentorship opportunities and unique education enhancements. Apart from primary mentors, mentorship committees provide feedback to ACIs during biannual meetings, and ACIs serve as mentors themselves to clinical fellows and summer students. As an added bonus, Maya has taken advantage of getting a Duke/NIH masters degree in clinical research as part of her ACI training, allowing her to apply what she learns from the Duke curriculum to her clinical work.
The NICHD is a place where bench meets bedside and clinical research has been elevated to a new level. The ACI program helps clinical fellows become the independent clinical investigators that make it all happen. "The ACI program, for me, has been a tool to help me reach my career goals. My hope is to gain enough experience in this 3-5 year ACI program to be able to launch a career in translational research either here at the NIH or at an extramural academic institution," says Joan.
Simply put, Maya describes this opportunity as "a really phenomenal program that's filling a need."