A surgeon-scientist in otolaryngology is uniquely able to address clinical needs, identify gaps in knowledge, design and execute experiments, and translate discoveries from bench to bedside. Otolaryngology residency does not typically provide the training necessary for a surgeon to develop into an independently funded scientist. As otolaryngologists, we often have result-oriented personalities, and the long road to independent and successful science is challenging. It requires further training, the humility to accept direction, the resiliency to seek funding, and the fortune to have a supportive academic environment.
Explore This IssueMarch 2020
Training for Research
During the four-month research block in my third year of residency, I participated in basic science and clinical research projects. I wrote and obtained a Centralized Otolaryngology Research Efforts (CORE) resident research grant through the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, which was my introduction into the realm of funding. Like many residents, however, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But, I was fortunate to have a mentor with perspective beyond mine at the time. Dr. Robert Kern is the chairman of otolaryngology at Northwestern University, and I as progressed through residency, he encouraged me to explore my interests in research.
As a chief resident, I had excellent surgical training but hardly, if any, formal training in how to do research professionally. Dr. Kern introduced me to Dr. Jane Holl, a pediatrician and, at the time, director of Northwestern’s Center for Healthcare Studies. I had the opportunity to stay on as junior faculty in otolaryngology and as a concurrent fellow in the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), within the Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Service Research Award (NRSA) T32 program. (A T32 is an institutional training grant program sponsored by the NIH, AHRQ, or other national body.)
Why Protected Time Is Vital
During the fellowship, I earned a master’s degree in health services and outcomes research. For those two years, I had 75% protected time for research, and was able to start my clinical practice with two half-days in clinic and a half-day in the OR per week. “Protected time” refers to the amount of working time reserved for research or research training, that should not be consumed by other work such as clinical, educational, or administrative duties. The T32 and approximately $20,000 per year of departmental research startup funds supported a part-time research assistant, statistical support, database acquisition, and analytical software, all of which I learned to use through my fellowship training. Perhaps the biggest asset from that time was the opportunity to have mentors and co-investigators in both the surgical and non-surgical divisions (such as in social sciences, internal medicine, and epidemiology). This formal research training and phenomenal mentorship from Dr. Holl were essential to my development as a scientist.
Professional research is a very different world from the operating room, and the next steps towards higher level grant funding were challenging. During my fellowship, I prepared and submitted a KL2 grant proposal. (K awards are mentored career development awards that are typically sponsored by the NIH, AHRQ, or other national body.)