Program invests in early-stage translational science researchers

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Researchers of cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, staph infections in babies, health behavior choices in sexual minority college students, high blood pressure management in African Americans, proactive sexually transmitted infection testing, and the brain’s role in determining a smoker’s flavor preference will receive dedicated time to advance their work through a Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute program that invests in early-career faculty. The institute’s KL2 Scholars Program gives researchers establishing themselves in their fields dedicated time to help their findings benefit human health more quickly while becoming successful, independent translational scientists.

The 2018 scholars started in January after a competitive application process and are part of the program for up to three years. This year’s scholars are Oluwamuyiwa Winifred Adebayo, Yendelela Cuffee, Jessica Ericson, Steffany Fredman, Chandrika Gowda, Andrea Hobkirk, Cara Rice and Kathleen Sturgeon.

“Our program provides scholars with diverse research interests a supportive environment to network with other health researchers, and the skills and experience needed to become successful, independent clinical and translational scientists,” said Dr. Diane Thiboutot, KL2 co-director.

“As researchers begin their careers, their time is often filled with applying for grants and funding to conduct their fledgling work, teaching and establishing themselves in the university,” said Lorah Dorn, co-director. “The KL2 program develops our scholars through coursework, providing research mentors, providing protected time for their research and offering career development opportunities.”

KL2 funding protects 75 percent of the scholar’s time to work on his or her research and career development, plus provides funding for research supplies, tuition support and money for travel to attend other learning opportunities. The program is customized based on the needs of the scholars, who develop an individual development plan with their mentors. For example, scholars who have already completed research coursework and have a well-defined area of research and preliminary data will be ready to begin submitting applications for external research funding earlier in the KL2 funding period compared to scholars with less training.

KL2 scholars select from courses offered by university graduate programs including clinical and translational science, public health sciences and others. The career development plan for KL2 scholars provides them time to earn either a master of science in public health sciences or a graduate certificate in translational science depending upon their prior level of training. Scholars also may enroll in one or more courses, as needed, without earning a certificate or degree.

“We are fortunate to have this cross-campus program here at Penn State to support the diversity of research conducted by these promising junior faculty researchers,” Thiboutot said.

The program is funded through the National Institutes of Health. Applications will be accepted again in 2020. For more information, visit ctsi.psu.edu.

Each of the scholars explained their projects and how the KL2 program will benefit them:

Oluwamuyiwa Winifred Adebayo

Oluwamuyiwa Winifred Adebayo, assistant professor of nursing, focuses on increasing proactive sexually transmitted infection testing and reducing infection transmission rates among youth.

“Becoming a KL2 scholar will provide me with a unique opportunity to grow as a researcher,” Adebayo said. “As a KL2 scholar, I will have access to mentors and targeted resources that will help me build momentum for my research plans and trajectory. In advancing my research, the KL2 program also connects me with like-minded scholars for collaboration, and very significantly, protected time to intensify my research efforts.”

Yendelela Cuffee

Yendelela Cuffee, assistant professor of public health sciences, is studying use of culturally-tailored, written stories compared to comics for African Americans with high blood pressure. The stories and comics will be based on the personal accounts of individuals managing high blood pressure, and will cover topics including diet, physical activity, adhering to medications and the challenges faced while managing high blood pressure. 

“As a KL2 scholar we have the opportunity to work closely with a team of experienced mentors that will play an active role in the development of our research projects,” Cuffee said. “In addition to the research aspect of the KL2 program, KL2 scholars are encouraged to participate in trainings and coursework in areas pertinent to their research. My research focuses on developing behavioral and lifestyle interventions to promote healthy behaviors. I plan to use this opportunity to enroll in coursework covering topics such as optimizing behavioral interventions, using mobile technology for research, and conducting community-based participatory research.”

Jessica Ericson

Jessica Ericson, assistant professor of pediatrics, studies the role of antibiotic sensitivity in how invasive bacterial infections, like meningitis or sepsis, are treated in infants. The project that she’ll be working on as part of the KL2 program will look at Staph infections in infants and how different levels of sensitivity to a commonly used antibiotic called vancomycin affect recovery. She will also work to develop ways of predicting which infants will ultimately have low sensitivity to vancomycin so that the best antibiotic for the infection can be used as early as possible in hopes of preventing death and other negative consequences of having a staph infection early in life. 

“Being a part of the KL2 scholars program provides financial support for the laboratory components of my project and probably more importantly, it gives me the opportunity to work with other, more experienced, scientists who have related expertise,” Ericson said. “This will help my project to develop more quickly and result in more useful results.”

Steffany Fredman

Steffany Fredman, assistant professor of human development and family studies and Karl R. Fink and Diane Wendle Fink Early Career Professor for the Study of Families is a licensed clinical psychologist and studies post-traumatic stress disorder and how it affects couple and family functioning. She focuses on incorporating family members into treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“The training afforded by the KL2 will allow me to learn techniques for understanding how couples with post-traumatic stress disorder regulate emotions moment-by-moment and on other short time scales in the hopes of developing more targeted couple- and family-based treatments for PTSD that improve the lives of trauma survivors and their loved ones,” Fredman said.

Chandrika Gowda

Dr. Chandrika Gowda’s research focuses on pediatric leukemia. She is a physician scientist, which means she both sees patients as a medical doctor and conducts research in a laboratory as a scientist. Her project involves a cancer promoting protein called Casein Kinase II and its role in diminishing the function of a Leukemia prevention protein called Ikaros. Inhibiting the Casein Kinase protein will restore the ability of Ikaros protein to function properly and prevent leukemia. Gowda will test if using a drug that inhibits Casein Kinase protein along with drugs that are known to work for leukemia will work together more effectively and improve the outcome for patients.

“The KL2 award helps physician scientists like me to dedicate majority of my effort towards conducting translational research,” Gowda, a board-certified pediatric hematologist/oncologist said. “The mentoring, networking and educational opportunities that are available to me via the KL2 program will greatly help me to develop an independent research program and build a strong foundation for future career as physician scientist.”

Andrea Hobkirk

Andrea Hobkirk, assistant professor of psychiatry and public health sciences, ultimately wants to develop a translational research program related to smoking cessation and tobacco policy. Her project is studying how the brain contributes to a person’s dependence on other factors of smoking outside nicotine. Smokers develop dependence on features of the smoking experience, like the flavor of their cigarettes and other aspects of the smoking environment. Her project will use functional magnetic resonance imaging — commonly called MRI — to investigate the brain circuitry that brings about dependence on smoking flavors.

“The KL2 program provides me time and resources to focus on my research,” Hobkirk said. “The training will help me reach my goal of developing a translational research program that uses MRI to inform smoking cessation interventions and tobacco policy. As a KL2 scholar, I have a team of mentors in the Penn State Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science and the Center for NMR Research, and a large national network of translational researchers to assist me in reaching this goal.”

Cara Rice

Cara Rice, assistant research professor, the Methodology Center, wants to better understand the predictors of the well-documented health disparities affecting the sexual minority community, which includes lesbian, gay and bisexual populations. Her KL2 proposal is focused on understanding how discrimination might affect the health behavior choices of sexual minority college students.

“Being awarded a KL2 is an incredible honor and opportunity,” Rice said. “KL2 funding will allow me to focus exclusively on conducting this important research, while also acquiring training in several key areas like innovative statistical methods and the study of sexual minority health disparities. This opportunity will allow me to work to address some of the most complex and pressing questions facing the field of sexual minority health and transition into an independent and productive research career focused on reducing health disparities.”

Kathleen Sturgeon

Kathleen Sturgeon’s project has the potential to improve cancer survival rates.

“By completing the training afforded by the KL2 Program, I will build on my established skills in pre-clinical and clinical interventions,” said Sturgeon, assistant professor of public health sciences. “It will also afford me mentorship under an exercise immuno-oncology expert, Dr. Connie Rogers.”

That mentorship will be important to Sturgeon’s project. Just as different doses of drugs have variable effects on people, so too does exercise. She is researching to see what amounts of exercise can increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy and is trying to understand how the immune system is altered by exercise. A long-term objective is to increase the level of clinical and translational science at Penn State Cancer Institute.

 

Last Updated March 27, 2018