Overcoming the Challenges of Early Career
Research through Mentorship

The challenges of research – especially in the early career stages – can be daunting. Publishing can be hampered by a lack of access to resources, supervisory support, and time. Grant submissions and funding do not come as easily to early-stage investigators when compared to their more established peers. Opportunities for leadership roles are also less abundant.

The CTSC Mentored Clinical Research Training Program (MCRTP) is designed to help overcome these challenges. The program is specifically geared toward junior faculty, clinical and preclinical fellows, and postdoctoral scholars to provide comprehensive training and support to early-stage researchers. The MCRTP also helps investigators learn how to collaborate, use team science approaches, and think along the clinical-translational continuum. That is, intentionally thinking about how bench research can inform clinical and community practice and using reverse translation – taking observations from the clinic and population into questions to laboratory research to further innovation. Since 2006, 131 alumni have completed the program. And the stories they can tell…

Nam Tran, Ph.D.Nam Tran, clinical professor of pathology and laboratory medicine and senior director of clinical pathology

In 2014, UC Davis Health instituted the use of a glucose meter specifically designed for the critical care population – the first of its kind to be cleared by the FDA. It was the culmination of a research project that UC Davis Professor, Nam Tran, nurtured during his time as an MCRTP scholar.

Tran is now senior director of clinical pathology in charge of COVID-19 testing at UC Davis Health and a member of the statewide COVID-19 testing task force. His work on the glucose meter has continued to inform health care at UC Davis as well as his own research, which now includes COVID testing.

"The research and implementation science necessary to drive this glucose meter change has since been applied to other projects which has significantly impacted testing at UC Davis Health. In parallel, the grant work [done as part of the MCRTP program] helped me apply for the NHLBI Emergency Medicine K12 at UC Davis, where I furthered my work."

Tran credits the MCRTP as pivotal in his development as a researcher, noting that the protected time the program provides was a significant help to establish a foundation for his research.

The core curriculum of the MCRTP is the Clinical Research Graduate Group (CRGG) Master of Advanced Study (M.A.S.) program, in which MCRTP participants are concurrently enrolled and earn an M.A.S. in Clinical Research. In addition to the research coursework, scholars also receive mentoring, participate in an annual symposium, and complete a capstone project. Alumni report that the curriculum, which includes research methodology, experimental design, statistics, and grant writing, serves as highlights of the program they continue to use after graduation.

Mentoring and interactive engagement are key experiences in the MCRTP. Senior faculty provide guidance to participants throughout their two years in the program. Peer review in courses such as Grant Writing and Methods in Clinical Research offer participants the chance to practice the application of real-world research techniques.

Robert Canter, M.D.Robert Canter, clinical professor of surgical oncology

Participation in the journal club and the Team Science course furnish opportunities for collaboration and critical analysis – MCRTP alum Robert Canter, clinical professor in the Department of Surgery, pinpoints the journal club as sharpening participants' skills in critical analysis of biomedical literature. Since completing the program, Canter has established himself as a prolific researcher and mentor, achieving multiple K12 Career Development Awards, the Christine and Helen Landgraf Memorial Research Award for cancer research, and the Deans' Team Award for Excellence in Research. Networking with both experienced researchers and peers remains a valued feature of the program for Canter, who cited the exposure to experienced investigators as one of its primary and long-term strengths. And he has returned to the MCRTP as a mentor several times, for which he received the Deans' Award for Excellence in Mentoring in Research.

Aimee Moulin, M.D.Aimee Moulin, clinical professor of emergency medicine

For Aimee Moulin, a clinical professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine, the quarterly research presentations among the MCRTP scholars provided unique exposure to the diverse backgrounds and interests of her fellow scholars as well as the opportunity to learn about the breadth of their projects and different approaches to scientific inquiry.

The MCRTP capstone project requirement includes a completed grant application or journal article based on the research projects the participants develop or refine during the program. Moulin's work on an analysis of California Emergency Department (ED) visits for mental health culminated in the piloting of a Substance Use Navigator to the ED, which led to funding from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services and the California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS) to expand substance use treatment to EDs in California. Her work has also continued to benefit the community. "Currently," Moulin says, "over 150 EDs in California have a Substance Use Navigator and DHCS recently allocated $40 million to expand the program to every ED in California." 

Alumni of the MCRTP value the instruction, mentorship, networking opportunities, and overall experience of the program long after completing it.

Nam Tran found that the focus on statistics and grant writing remained consistently useful and he continues to share these concepts with new and junior faculty. The course serves as a refresher or emphasizes previously learned skills. "For example, the statistic classes [included] learning how to program in R software at the time," adds Tran.

Aimee Moulin recalled the conceptual learning the MCRTP provided. "One of the concepts that I use from the MCRTP is that of a mental model. Grounding an idea into the structure of a mental model has helped me to think creatively about common problems."

Robert Canter noted that the experience deepened his understanding of "research methodology and experimental design, familiarity with biostatistics, and an appreciation for the hard work and dedication needed to succeed in research."

The CTSC continues to foster the innovative research of the future and welcomes applications from UC Davis junior faculty (current and new recruits), clinical and preclinical fellows, and advanced postdoctoral scholars. Contact Stacy Hayashi at sahayshi@ucdavis.edu for more information.

21% MCRTP scholars (28 of 131) have at least one subsequent NIH grant. 21% MCRTP scholars (27 of 131) joined a KL2 or K12 career development program. Of MCRTP scholars with subsequent NIH grants, 54% did not complete KL2 or K12 before their NIH grant (15 of 28) and 46% completed KL2 or K12 before their NIH grant (13 of 28). MCRTP Scholars’ received $38.8M grants from NIH (including MPI) and other sources. 84 scholars are still at UC Davis (64%). 5 MCRTP grads became PIs on NIH T32 or K12 training grants, totaling $5.1m. MCRTP Scholars have published more than 4,500 articles (Average H-Index = 12).