How Penn State trains the next generation of translational scientists

Matthew G. Solovey
January 21, 2021

Each TL1 Clinical Research Training Awards program uniquely approaches the same objective: to develop the skills and knowledge in pre- and post-doctoral trainees to engage in clinical and translational research. As part of the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences' (NCATS) Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) program, Penn State is one of more than 60 organizations nationally charged with delivering infrastructure and training to improve the health research process. 

Each CTSA hub site with a TL1 award develops an interdisciplinary research training program that builds on institutional strengths. The award program aims to train scientists to lead the design and oversight of future clinical investigations critical to NCATS' and National Institutes of Health's overall missions.

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute oversees the University's TL1 training award, called the Translational Research Training Program

“The educational programs that we offer would not be available without the CTSA grant,” Gail Thomas, director of the Translational Research Training Program at the College of Medicine, said. “The support provided by the CTSA awards made it possible to develop and launch these programs. None of them existed before.”

Penn State’s program offers several benefits, including flexibility in the curriculum and exposure to a diversity of scientific disciplines.

"My perspective is that I would prefer to give the students as much opportunity to tailor their education," Thomas said. "I like the variety of programs we offer because it allows students to choose the one they feel is going to meet their needs best.”

One way Penn State distinguishes itself from other universities is through the students it recruits into its program. 

“The majority of the hubs seem to have a mix of pre-docs and post-docs, so we are one of only a handful that focuses just on pre-docs,” Thomas said. “I think that makes us somewhat unique.” 

Including post-docs has its advantages, especially in demonstrating a program’s effectiveness. 

“Post-docs are already more focused at that point, so you're selecting individuals who've already decided this is the career path they want,” Thomas said. “Post-docs are further along in their pathway, and they're going to be generating more papers and presentations for the most part.”

When developing its program, however, Penn State adopted a different philosophy. 

“Pre-docs can go in lots of different directions. So, it's a little bit more of a gamble with pre-docs,” Thomas explained. “But at Penn State, the original thought was that if you capture these students early enough in their education, you can have potentially a greater impact on the career they choose down the road.” 

With an emphasis on collaboration in translational science, Penn State's year-long program includes a diversity of student education programs. At any one time, the program can consist of graduate, medical, dual-degree, MD-PhD or MD-MPH students. Medical students are eligible for the program if they take a year out to focus full-time on research. Penn State bases its programs at its College of Medicine and its University Park campuses, exposing students to their peers in diverse scientific disciplines. Connie Rogers oversees the program at University Park campus. 

“Because we are drawing students from different disciplines, they have to be able to talk to one another,” Thomas explained. “We're helping them enhance their communication skills. We're helping them to learn about different disciplines. And that's all part of being a translational scientist.” 

Another advantage is that the different disciplines sometimes have different emphases in their curriculums. This difference can help the students see gaps in their knowledge when they come together. For example, Thomas said that students in the social sciences at the University Park campus often have more statistical experience than those in the biomedical sciences at the College of Medicine. 

“When we ask them to think about questions and to work together to provide solutions, you can pick out where the students have their strengths,” Thomas said. “It helps the students to see what others know and helps them to start thinking about ‘how can I fill in that gap in my knowledge?’”

Penn State's program is one of a handful to require trainees to complete either a certificate in translational science or a dual-title degree in clinical and translational sciences. The dual-title is not a separate degree but a fully integrated course of study in translational science within 12 participating graduate programs. Participating programs include biomedical sciences, neuroscience, biobehavioral health, nursing, nutritional sciences and kinesiology. 

“Our students are walking away with bona fide academic credentials in this relatively new discipline of clinical and translational science,” Thomas said.

Both of these options have great flexibility for students. Many courses are available online to give students options that will not interfere with their research lab work.

“The way that the training is integrated is as holistic as we can get so that we are not extending the time of training, but we think that we are greatly expanding the opportunities,” Thomas said.

“The certificate program is, in my opinion, very unique in that regard, because if you look at most certificate programs here at Penn State, they’re very prescribed,” Thomas said. “There are maybe four, five, six courses. Sometimes you have to take them in a specific sequence, and they don't allow a whole lot of choice.”

In contrast, the certificate in translational science option offers at least 30 approved courses to fulfill requirements in biostatistics, experimental design, epidemiology and research ethics. 

“This allows students from various disciplines to create a personalized certificate curriculum that truly complements the training they're receiving through their major programs,” Thomas said.

The dual-title option has more than 90 approved courses that fulfill requirements in statistics, experimental design and interpretation, epidemiology, bioinformatics, the regulatory environment and scientific communication.

“We can accommodate the needs of the behavioral scientists, as well as the biomedical scientists, so students are not all forced into the same track,” Thomas said. “If we looked, I believe we wouldn't have any one student who had the same curriculum as another student.”

The career goals of the students are the focus of the dual-title option's internship requirement. 

"The students are responsible for developing their customized internships," Thomas said. “The students decide where they want to spend internship time, who to work with and how the internship is structured. We have not had a single student who has done the same internship as another student.” 

While the Translational Research Training Program is open to graduate students and medical students, only a few medical students typically apply each year. The majority of these are MD-PhD students already prepared to pause their medical education to engage full-time in research training. The lower medical student participation is one area of feedback the program has received through grant reviews. 

“It's a valid criticism, but it's also, in part, a reflection of the limited time that most medical students are willing or able to devote to full-time research,” Thomas said. “One of the ways that we've tried to provide more training opportunities for medical students was to start a short-term program which complements, rather than competes with, the medical school curriculum. By offering the program during the summer, it allows medical students to participate at the end of their first year when many are already planning to complete their required medical student research projects.”

The short-term program — the Translational Science Fellowship — is designed to have an equal number of medical and graduate student participants. The Translational Science Fellowship, directed by Ira Ropson, is for early-stage learners. It includes training in foundational skills such as research design and data analysis and professional skills such as communication, ethics and teamwork. The program emphasizes independent and facilitated active group learning. Opportunities to practice skills are integrated throughout the program using case studies, simulations, computer-based modules and small-group discussions. Only a small number of CTSA Program hubs offer similar programs. 

Both the year-long and summer programs focus on preparing students to view their research in a larger context.

“I think one of our primary goals is to make the students aware at an early stage of their training what translational science entails," Thomas said. "As translational scientists, they should always be thinking about the ultimate goal to improve human health. They need to consider how the research they may perform at any one step along the translational pipeline will inform the next step. Ideally, they will start to identify ways to improve the translational potential of their research to move along the pipeline a little bit faster. 

"That is not something that they typically get from their major programs. Their major programs help them develop depth as research scientists in specific disciplines; we help them develop breadth across the translational science spectrum, so they have a better understanding of what is needed to facilitate the transition from basic benchtop research to clinical practice."

Applications are currently open for 2021 for both programs. Learn more here

Last Updated January 21, 2021