As an early to mid-career surgeon-scientist, I find that my patients and their conditions generate research questions, and it is both challenging and rewarding to attempt to answer these questions.
Explore This IssueMarch 2020
I became the top finalist for the KL2. Unfortunately, the funding line lapsed. I next submitted an R03 grant and scored in the mid-30s, just above the payline. (An R03 is a grant that supports small research projects and is typically funded by the NIH, AHRQ, or other national body.) I was then fortunate to receive a Triological Society Research Career Development Award. This was my first success, and it taught me the importance of exploring a variety of funding opportunities. I continued to explore individual K awards and received a K12 grant (on a second revision) through the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality-funded Northwestern University Patient-Centered Intervention and Engagement Training program, with Dr. David Cella. The Triological award and K12 protected time (75%) were invaluable to my developing further research skills and establishing a research agenda.
Protected time is an essential aspect to the career path of a surgeon-scientist. How much protected time is enough? No published evidence exists to support a specific level. Though some surgeons may be granted exceptions at 50%, most training grants require at least 75% protected time. I have been fortunate to have a department and mentors who recognize the vital importance of protected time, and I would not succeed without their support. Formalized training in my master’s program taught me research skills, and the actual degree can give a competitive edge for grant applications. Protected time is needed for the writing and rewriting that comes with applications, papers, and presentations. Finally, time is needed to sit down and meet with co-investigators, plan projects, and complete experiments. As an otolaryngologist, my time could be readily filled with clinics and procedures. And while I sincerely enjoy those, clinical endeavors could forever encompass my time, leaving research to the late-night hours after my kids are asleep. But to make research a professional part of my practice, dedicated time, just like dedicated OR time, is essential.
Other Elements of Success
Collaboration and mentorship are also essential to succeeding as a surgeon-scientist. Mentors in other scientific disciplines can offer great insight, not only in their scientific expertise, but also in grantsmanship and career development. I am fortunate to have extraordinary mentors (Drs. Jane Holl, David Cella, Kenzie Cameron, and Robert Schleimer) who have each helped dozens of junior faculty launch research careers leading to R01 funding. Their mentorship expertise is essentially unparalleled in a small field like otolaryngology. I’ve also enjoyed maintaining collaborations with former residents who have become co-investigators and friends across the country. Additionally, I have found that serving on committees such as the American Rhinologic Society Research and Grants Committee and Women in Rhinology section not only essential for my productivity, but also very rewarding.
Finally, I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a department and institution that provide the right environment. Institutional research resources (e.g., biostatistical support, Institutional Review Board navigators, skilled librarians) can be extremely helpful. A department that has forged good relationships with other scientists and has established paths to research support services is set up for success. Management also has to understand the role of scientists in the institution. I have been fortunate to train and practice at Northwestern University, where leadership has invested in scientific collaboration as an integral component of our department.