Translational science training programs credited with student success

Matthew G. Solovey
January 16, 2019

Scott Graupensperger is making the most of his Penn State education – delving into a number of training programs and experiences to prepare him for a research career. The dual-title kinesiology and clinical and translational sciences doctoral student has been a regular presence at Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute, which he credits with preparing him for his current successes and his future endeavors.

“The most salient aspect of my training at Penn State, that I believe is contributing to my future success as an independent scientist, is the opportunities for mentorship and development through the University’s institutes and centers,” Graupensperger said. “The Clinical and Translational Science Institute has been instrumental.”

Graupensperger has participated in two of the institute’s programs: the Translational Science Fellowship summer program and the year-long TL1 Translational Research Training Program. Both programs are currently accepting applications. 

Gail Thomas, TL1 program co-director, recalled that Graupensperger had contacted her about the training opportunities at Penn State before he even arrived on campus. 

“Scott expressed a keen interest in the TL1 program and wanted to make sure he would be eligible to apply in his first year of graduate training,” Thomas said. “Scott began his doctoral program in January and applied within a month to our training programs.”      

His interest in translational research started in his first year of graduate school. Translational science is about “translating” new knowledge into practical use through collaboration and across a variety of scientific disciplines. During new student orientation, Jim Pawelczyk, co-director of the dual-title program, discussed the benefits of studying translational science.

“Although I knew that translation is an important goal that health researchers strive for, I was unaware of how complex the translational gap can be,” Graupensperger said. 

Through an independent study course with his mentor, Blair Evans, Graupensperger realized his passion for translational research and applied for the dual title program. There, he added mentor Rob Turrisi to expand his research focus of group dynamics to include emerging adult health behaviors. 

“Dr. Turrisi has been instrumental in helping me bridge my research interests in group dynamics to emerging adult alcohol prevention,” Graupensperger said. “Even while on sabbatical, Dr. Turrisi provided excellent mentorship through my writing of a National Research Service Award fellowship application, and connected me with additional mentors to help guide my development.” 

Graupensperger has also received early-career mentorship from Pawelczyk and Susan McHale, associate director of the institute and distinguished professor of human development and family studies.

“I am incredibly fortunate to have an excellent mentorship team,” Graupensperger said. “Dr. Evans always makes time for mentorship, including getting me detailed -- and very prompt -- feedback on manuscript or grant submissions. He is also generous with providing opportunities for me to  ‘shine,’ such as giving me opportunities for first authorship on our research projects and writing numerous letters of recommendation for funding and other awards.”

Graupensperger has received several grants including a North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity Graduate Student Research Grant Award. He is also supported by the college’s National Institute on Drug Abuse T32 Prevention and Methodology Training Grant. He is first author on five of nine published and in-press studies and has another four currently under review. He’s also given 17 presentations on his work at a variety of conferences and symposiums. Graupensperger received several awards including an Early Career Preventionists Network Poster Award by the Society for Prevention Research; the Penn State Kinesiology Department Excellence in Graduate Recruitment Award; and the Predoctoral TL1 Poster Presentation Award at the Translational Science 2018 meeting to name a few.

“In considering features that helped Scott maintain his momentum, one is simply how early he started thinking about how to shape his pathway as an independent scholar,” Evans said. “For example, he applied six months before arriving at Penn State for his first small research award. With that support, he completed an entire study – with nearly 400 varsity athletes – entirely during his first term on campus. As the first graduate trainee I’ve mentored since becoming an independent researcher, his achievements are particularly notable for him – and especially valued within my own role.”

Evans said that Graupensperger is also proactive finding opportunities to learn.  

“The Translational Science Fellowship was a great example of this,” Evans said. “In his first year here, he’d heard from Dr. Pawelczyk about the summer program, along with the dual-title program, and he was all over it. That was an early and independent choice, and it exposed him to people and ideas that continue to shape his trajectory.”

The Translational Science Fellowship provides graduate and medical students with the opportunity to gain select knowledge and skills in clinical and translational research in a summer experiential program. The program includes training in both foundational skills, like research design and data analysis, and professional skills, such as communications, ethics and teamwork. Examples of real-world clinical and translational research are used throughout the course.

“The summer program was an intensive immersion into clinical and translational science through which I learned several practical skills and was able to learn from expert researchers from around Penn State,” Graupensperger said. “I used the i2b2 electronic health record database to conduct research on hard-to-access populations, such as individuals with spinal cord injuries. Using i2b2, I have written two first author manuscripts.” I2b2 is an institute-sponsored tool that allows researchers to determine how many patients with specified characteristics are potentially available, determining if a study is feasible. 

In addition to the summer program, the institute offers the year-long immersive TL1 Predoctoral Training Program that provides tailored educational opportunities for graduate and medical students to acquire the knowledge and skills essential for conducting interdisciplinary clinical and translational research.

“Using the summer fellowship as a foundational springboard, the TL1 helped me to reach my educational goals by freeing my time to focus on my research projects, providing funding to attend inspiring conferences, and providing additional opportunities for translation science training,” Graupensperger said. 

The TL1 program also provided an important support system of established researchers.

“Scott seeks senior viewpoints on his pathway – and that is one characteristic that the Clinical and Translations Science Institute program, in particular, has provided opportunities,” Evans said. “Each time he has reached out to individuals on the TL1 mentorship group – including Dr. Pawelczyk, Dr. Tom Lloyd, Dr. Turrisi and Dr. McHale – they make time to provide thoughtful feedback, and provide honest advice about where some of the greatest opportunities lay ahead.”

Through the dual-title program, Graupensperger had the opportunity to complete a clinical and translational science internship at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Center where he worked with researchers in adolescent health. 

“This was an excellent opportunity to conduct multidisciplinary research in a unique pediatric clinical setting,” Graupensperger said. “The project that I worked on was focused on improving teenagers’ health through a combination of sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. I was additionally tasked with leading a pilot study using teens’ smartphone usage to track sedentary behaviors as they relate to sleep patterns.”

Within the next decade, Graupensperger hopes to be a tenured research professor at a research-focused university.  According to Turrisi, Graupensperger has the qualities that can get him there.

“Scott is very good at taking full advantage of constructive comments to improve,” Turrisi said. “He has standards and goals that align with researchers who tend to be the most productive in their respective fields; he’s well above average in productivity.”

For more information on applying for the Translational Science Fellowship summer programs, visit the program website. Deadline to apply is March 15. For more information on applying for the year-long TL1 Translational Research Program, visit the program website. Deadline to apply is Feb. 28.

Last Updated January 20, 2019