Q&A: Taking Mathematics to Heart

This was a fun Q&A to do. One of my colleagues spotted a press release about an article on mathematical cardiology that was published in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. I called up the author, John Wesley Cain, just to find out what the heck mathematical cardiology is. Our conversation was so interesting that I decided to publish the Q&A.

Intro to the article is below; read the whole thing on Science Careers.

John Wesley Cain, 34, started graduate school with a mathematician’s aversion to biology. He took a course in his first semester at Duke University with David Schaeffer, an applied mathematician who was just beginning to study models of cardiac rhythms. In the class, Cain had to choose from a list of projects and ended up working on mathematical models of cardiac action potential. “I think that was secretly his favorite project,” Cain says.

Cain himself took quickly to the work. “I thought the mathematics was cool. I thought the applications were cool.” Eventually, Schaeffer became Cain’s Ph.D. adviser. Now, Cain is an assistant professor at in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. There, he works in applied mathematics with an emphasis on cardiac electrophysiology.

Much of the work he does is in interdisciplinary teams. In fact, he is a co-principal investigator on a training grant in computational cardiology that focuses on teamwork. “The idea is to try to get clinicians, basic science researchers, mathematicians, computer scientists — you name it — to actually talk to each other,” Cain says. The culmination of that grant will be the World Congress on Mathematical Modeling and Computational Simulation of Cardiovascular and Cardiopulmonary Dynamics at the College of William and Mary from 31 May to 3 June.

This summer, Cain will move to a new position as an associate professor at the University of Richmond, which, he says, is more geared toward undergraduate education. “I have a lot of projects that I have been really itching to get some of their undergraduates involved [with],” he says. He will continue his collaborations with VCU, in part for its medical center and team of cardiologists.


Read our interview here.

Q&A: Finding and Exploiting Cancer’s Weaknesses

My latest story posted on Science Careers:

Oncologist David Solit, 41, has some close professional role models: His father was a surgeon and his grandfather a family practitioner. Like many doctors who pursue oncology, he became interested in the disease after a relative died from breast cancer. But it was a laboratory rotation during his oncology fellowship that sealed his interest in cancer research.

“My interest was not to stay in the clinic and try to use the drugs that we had, which, in my opinion, were not very good,” Solit says. “I thought it would be best to stay in the lab and to try to actually develop some better treatments that we could bring into the clinic.”

Now, Solit holds the Elizabeth and Felix Rohatyn Chair for Junior Faculty and heads his own laboratory in the Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. His lab studies a particular signaling pathway, the RAS/RAF/MEK/ERK pathway, which regulates cell growth and survival in several cancers. “We try to identify the underlying genetic basis of different tumor types and then develop novel therapies that will exploit the specific mutations that drive tumorigenesis or cancer progression,” he says. Solit is the author of an upcoming Perspective in Science Signaling on MEK resistance, which will be published on 29 March.

Solit spoke with Science Careers earlier this month about his research and his career path. The following highlights from the interview were edited for brevity and clarity. A full transcript of the conversation is available on CTSciNet.

Click here to continue reading on the Science Careers Web site.

The article was part of a special issue of Science on cancer; see the list of all related content in all the Science publications at www.sciencemag.org/special/cancer2011/.

Sharing Data in Biomedical and Clinical Research

This month I wrote an extensive piece on data sharing in clinical and biomedical research, which was posted on CTSciNet and Science Careers. What I originally envisioned as a primer on the topic turned into a massive undertaking, and the final result is still just a fraction of the material on the topic. The focus for this piece, as it is for most articles for CTSciNet and Science Careers, was to provide actionable advice to early-career researchers.

The story was one of three we ran in Science Careers: regular contributor Chelsea Wald did a fantastic job looking at biomedical ontology as both a field and a tool (Chelsea writes an amusing reporter’s notebook on it that involves unicorns), and my colleague Elisabeth Pain, Europe editor for Science Careers, talked to scientists in a variety of fields about the skills needed to manage, analyze and comprehend the volumes of data that overwhelm most fields.

And all of THOSE were part of a massive, cross-publication effort on the topic of data. See all the stories and articles here.

Swedish Researcher Makes Sports and Science Headlines

I will admit that I tend to ignore satellite events at conferences, particularly sponsored ones. But at this year’s ESOF meeting in Turin, my eagle-eyed husband spotted an intriguing one by Swedish agency Vinnova that featured a Ph.D. student presenting her research on the long-term health effects of prolonged sitting. That Ph.D. student, Elin Ekblom-Bak, also happens to be a professional football player. Read my story on her here.

For Physician-Scientist Couple, Success is in Balance

When people ask — and they do ask — where Deepali Kumar and Atul Humar’s clinical and research interests diverge, the two scientists answer patiently. Both physician-scientists at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, Deepali and Atul are a couple, and both are specialists in transplant infectious diseases. “My interest is in herpes viruses in transplant patients,” Atul says. “And my main interest is in vaccines and improving vaccine responses in transplant patients,” Deepali says.

Instead of focusing on the differences between them, Deepali and Atul embrace the similarities. They can cover each other’s patients, deal interchangeably with administrative issues, even manage each other’s research projects when necessary. The flexible arrangement allows them to spend as much time as they can with their three children, ages 4, 6, and 8. They think they are the only couple in the world working together on transplant-related infectious diseases. And working together, they say, is their unique strength as physicians and researchers. “Working together is really synergistic,” says Deepali, who is 37. “It’s really the collaboration that produces good science.”

Published on Science Careers, Feb. 26, 2010. Read the whole story here.

The Playground of Life

As we waved goodbye to the Noughties (a term I hadn’t actually heard until about 2 weeks ago) and welcomed 2010, I found myself doing the annual personal inventory of what I accomplished last year and what I want to do in the next. I kept coming back to a question I heard repeated over and over a few months ago: “How are you going to have no regrets on Sunday?”

This isn’t a question about Catholic guilt (unless you want it to be): It’s a question for anyone who’s due (or overdue) for a hard look at his or her personal goals and career interests. It came from Peter Hawkins, director of the Windmills program, who gave the closing plenary talk at the Vitae Researcher Development Conference in September. He had asked us to think of our lives as a week: You’re born on Monday morning. Monday night, you’re 12 years old. By Tuesday night, you’re 24; Wednesday, 36 years old; and so on.

Sunday is the last “day” of your life (“If you do the health and fitness stuff, you might have a bank holiday Monday,” Hawkins quipped). “Where are you in the week?” Hawkins asked. “Where are the people who are important to you in your life? Wherever you are in your week, how are you going to have no regrets on Sunday?”

He led us through a series of exercises to get us thinking about how each of us would answer that question. He started by asking, of the hundreds of skills you have (yes, you have hundreds of skills), do you know which five or six you really love using? What are they? Then, are you maximizing those skills in a way that inspires you every day?

Continue reading this entry on the Science Careers blog.

Perspective: Three Crucial Questions When Applying to M.D.-Ph.D. Programs

For all the work you’ll do during your bachelor’s degree and the careful consideration you’ll put into choosing the right doctoral program, it’s important to remember that you’ve only just set out on the journey--and you can change routes.

“I was very anti-premed when I was in college,” says Karla Leavens, now a 5th-year student in the M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania. “I really loved biology and science.” But during her junior year, she took an endocrinology course and discovered that she really enjoyed the clinical application of biology. At that point, she hadn’t taken the MCAT or otherwise prepared to apply to medical school, so she went ahead with graduate school applications and continued with her initial plan for a career in research. “I never figured I could switch [degree programs], but I figured I could get some sort of training–go to med school afterwards or … take some clinically oriented classes,” she says.

After she started her Ph.D. in the cell biology and physiology program at Penn, she noticed that many people were doing both clinical work and research–and that was the path she decided to take. She took the MCAT the summer after starting at Penn and applied to the M.D.-Ph.D. program that fall. The following year, 2 years after starting her Ph.D., she entered the M.D.-Ph.D. program. “It really helps to keep options open,” Leavens advises. “Ultimately, it’s your life and your career, and you have to decide what that is.”

Click here to read the whole story, which I co-authored with Skip Brass.

Perspective: Speed Networking for Scientists

Although speed dating was invented by a Los Angeles, California, rabbi as a way for Jewish singles to meet, speed dating and its cousin, speed networking, were rapidly and widely adopted in New York City. That seems fitting, quips Brian Kelly, director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization at Weill Cornell Medical College: New York is a city where “you’re going to know the guy who delivers your Chinese food better than the guy who lives next door.” The same can be said of large research institutions such as Weill Cornell, he says: “People on the fourth floor here don’t know what happens on the fifth floor.”

Kelly was on the team that wrote the grant proposal for Weill Cornell’s Clinical and Translational Science Award, which they received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September 2007. At a brainstorming session for the project in the summer of 2006, Kelly and his colleagues were thinking of innovative ways to promote new collaborations among researchers across CTSC’s diverse institutions. Kelly had just read an article on speed dating in New York City, so he suggested it as something they could apply in the context of CTSC. None of the proposals, he says, “hit home in terms of the ability to get to know your neighbor as well as speed networking.” Julianne Imperato-McGinley, principal investigator of the CTSC, picked up on the suggestion and incorporated it into the grant proposal.

Once CTSC had its funding, Weill Cornell hired consultant Louise Holmes, an employment-skills consultant (and the author of the accompanying Perspective), to plan what would be called the Translational Research Bazaar. “There were very few, if any, examples of speed networking with this particular demographic,” she says. So she watched YouTube videos of speed-networking events and attended a Manhattan Chamber of Commerce speed-networking event to get a feel for the setup and flow. But there was one question those events couldn’t answer: Would the scientists buy into it?

Click here to read this story, which I co-authored with Louise Holmes.

Psychosocial Oncology Research Faces Uncertain Future in UK

In November, the cancer charity Cancer Research UK announced its research strategy for the next 5 years. Included in it are goals to increase research on the early diagnosis of cancer; invest more in research on radiotherapy and surgery; and devote more research to cancers of the lung, pancreas, and esophagus. But for some researchers, the strategy is notable for what it doesn’t include: Cancer Research UK has decided to discontinue funding research in several areas it has long supported, including psychosocial oncology.

The decision has “created seismic shockwaves” throughout the psychosocial oncology research community, said Lesley Fallowfield, Ph.D., director of the Cancer Research UK Sussex Psychosocial Oncology Group at the University of Sussex. At the same time, it means that she and her colleagues have to start looking for new funding in an uncertain economy. “With the current economic gloom and doom, this is not a good time to be looking for other funders,” Fallowfield said.

Broadly defined, psychosocial oncology investigates the psychological, behavioral, and social aspects of cancer. Likewise, research in this area is broad, even among the programs supported by Cancer Research UK. Fallowfield and her group have done research in several aspects of psychosocial oncology but primarily specialize in teaching effective communication skills to practicing oncologists. Galina Velikova, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Psychosocial Oncology and Clinical Practice Research Group at the University of Leeds, specializes in patient-reported outcomes of symptoms and emotional distress among cancer patients. Michael Sharpe, M.D., director of the Psychological Medicine Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, and his group do large-scale clinical trials on managing depression in cancer.

Cancer Research UK will continue to support all three programs until their grants run out, which is in 2011 for Fallowfield and 2012 for Sharpe and Velikova. Their program grants range from about £1.7 million to about £5 million over 5 years, “a mere blip”—less than 1%—of the organization’s total research budget, Fallowfield said.

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, May 26, 2009. Read the rest of this article online.

Darwin’s Legacy: Keeping Order

It’s hard to keep up with Erica McAlister as she darts through the labyrinth comprising the entomology department at London’s Natural History Museum. She’s eager to show off its treasures: iridescent beetles from South America, bugs with plantlike bodies, damselflies and dragonflies from around the world. “I was bitten by that, showing off,” she says, pointing to a wasp spider (Argiope bruennichi) in a case displaying preserved arachnids. She was at a party, trying to impress the guests by determining the spider’s sex, when it bit her. “I could probably give you a tour of things that have bitten me,” she says.

Instead, the current tour reaches its climax at the end of the corridor. “This is my room,” she says, pushing through a door to a corner room filled with several rows of 5-foot-tall green metal cabinets, stacked two high. The cabinets house the museum’s collection of insects from the order Diptera–the true flies, which include gnats, midges, and mosquitoes. McAlister, 35, is one of three Diptera curators among the entomology department‘s curatorial staff of about two dozen.

McAlister shows off the Diptera collection like an adoring parent: the lovely bee flies; the curious hairy legs of the robber fly; the amazing eyes of the stalk-eyed flies; the mosquito with feathered mid-legs that look like legwarmers; U.K. crane flies with wide wingspans and long, delicate legs; the horse fly with a 2-inch-long proboscis; the bot flies that lay their eggs on mosquitoes for transportation. “There’s so much diversity,” she says. “They’re amazing, insects.”

Read the rest of this story on Science Careers.