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Eight junior faculty begin Mentored Career Development KL2 Program

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute program offers scholars the opportunity to further their careers in clinical and translational science

Penn State researchers with varied research interests, including identifying mental health risk factors, improving quality of life for aging adults and combatting chronic disease in vulnerable populations, have embarked upon a training program in clinical and translational sciences.

The Mentored Career Development KL2 Program is a two- to three-year opportunity offered by Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). It teaches the next generation of scientists the skills to move research efficiently out of the laboratory to benefit people in clinical and community settings.

The KL2 program supports full-time Penn State faculty with a doctorate at the rank of assistant professor. It provides career development and clinical and/or translational research training to become independently funded, successful and ethical clinical and translational investigators. KL2 scholars are selected through a competitive application process.

“The KL2 program gives junior faculty the time, resources and skills to help them work with their mentoring team to become independent scientists,” said Chris Sciamanna, co-director of the KL2 program. “A key goal of the KL2 is to help junior faculty improve their grant-writing skills, because funding is so difficult yet central to success and so often a reason faculty have to abandon their research goals.”

Selected scholars receive 75% full-time professional effort for their career development, funding for research-related costs and research training during the mentored phase.

This research training is instrumental in positioning junior faculty to become successful translational scientists, explained Lorah Dorn, co-director of the program.

“We are excited to have this new cohort of junior faculty scholars begin their mentored career development award with us,” she said. “The CTSI program is designed to help scholars develop independence in their research careers through funding opportunities, as well as to enhance their knowledge of clinical translational research and team science. In addition, scholars will learn critical skills in leadership, effective communication strategies across various groups and building their own interdisciplinary team for research.”

The new KL2 cohort also focuses on the importance of including rural communities in translational science endeavors.

KL2 program scholars for 2022-2025 are Sunhye Bai, Liza Behrens, Lauren Forrest, Emily Hohman, Sarah Horvath, Lina Huerta-Saenz, Alaina Pearce and Susan Veldheer.

The program is funded by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, Grant KL2 TR002015 and Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute, Grant UL1 TR00201. Partial support is provided by Penn State Office of the Senior Vice President for Research, Social Science Research Institute, Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Penn State College of Medicine and Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing.

Suicide risk reduction in young adults

Sunhye Bai is an assistant professor in human development and family studies at Penn State.

“I am excited to participate in the KL2 program to expand my program of research to include prevention science, hone my grant-writing skills and receive mentorship from experts and peers,” she said.

Bai is studying the crossover effects of a universal adolescent substance use prevention program on suicide risk in adulthood. This study examines the long-term effects on suicidal ideation of a school-based and family-focused intervention system designed to prevent adolescent substance misuse.

“We examine connectedness to school, peers and family, as well as the developmental trajectory of substance misuse as mediators of the long-term effect of the intervention on suicidality in young adulthood,” said Bai.

Quality of care and life for older adults who live in rural communities

Liza Behrens is an assistant professor at the Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing.

“My KL2 is primarily about improving the quality of care and life for older adults living in nursing homes,” she said. “I am excited for the opportunity to participate in the KL2 because it will provide me with the needed skills and knowledge to keep this work moving forward while there is momentum to change care and policies for care in the nursing home care community.”

Behrens is pilot testing DIGNITY (Decision-making In aGing and demeNtIa for auTonomY) for preference-based care in nursing homes.

“The project will evaluate the feasibility and preliminary efficacy of DIGNITY as a multilevel intervention to reduce barriers to and enhance staff engagement in risk mitigation to safely honor residents’ care and activity preferences in rural, underserved nursing home communities in Pennsylvania,” Behrens said. “The intervention includes two components: Penn State Project ECHO training for staff education and coaching and a risk assessment and care planning protocol.”

Suicide risk factors in rural areas

Lauren Forrest is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Penn State College of Medicine.

“My KL2 study will create personalized models of risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in people living in rural areas,” she said. “I’m excited to complete this project because suicidal thoughts and behaviors are a serious problem in rural areas, but people living in rural areas are very rarely included in suicide research. The study methods have really important implications for how suicidal thoughts and behaviors are studied, predicted, treated and prevented specifically for rural folks.”

Forrest will be studying personalized assessments and predictions of short-term suicide risk factors for people living in rural areas.

“I’m also excited to participate in the KL2 program as a whole because it’s a unique opportunity to learn from so many different experts, including my KL2 mentors, the KL2 directors and the other KL2 scholars,” said Forrest.

Children’s eating behaviors in rural areas

Emily Hohman is an assistant research professor at Penn State Center for Childhood Obesity Research.

“I’m excited to participate in the KL2 because it will help me to develop the skills I need to build and lead my own research program,” she said. “It will also be a way for me to connect to other translational researchers at Penn State and beyond. I am inspired by the many successes of previous KL2 trainees!”

Hohman is studying how to understand the day-to-day variation in children’s self-regulation of eating behaviors and how factors such as sleep influence those behaviors. She will use mobile and wearable technology to measure children’s eating behaviors, sleep, physical activity and emotions remotely.

“Using mobile technology will allow us to better reach families who live in rural, remote areas,” Hohman said. “Children from rural communities are at greater risk for obesity than those living in urban or suburban areas, but having to travel to a university or medical center often is a barrier for rural families to participate in research.”

Effects of Medicaid contraception policy changes in rural communities

Sarah Horvath is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Penn State College of Medicine and director of the Kenneth J. Ryan Residency Training Program.

“I am honored to participate in the KL2 program because it will give me invaluable skills for conducting research, building a team and thinking both creatively and critically,” she said. “It will give me the time, mentorship and familiarity with the structures of grantsmanship necessary to have a long-lasting career conducting systems-level translational research centered on the delivery of evidence-based reproductive health care.”

Horvath will study the impact of changes to Medicaid’s reimbursement policy for immediate postpartum, long-acting reversible contraception on patient outcomes and cost.

“We also hope to use our findings, newly developed expertise and multidisciplinary team to apply for funding to replicate these studies in multistate comparisons,” Horvath said. “We hope to eventually isolate the effects of different policy environments so that federal, state and private resources can be used most efficiently to provide a positive impact on patient outcomes.”

Children with Type 1 diabetes

Lina Huerta-Saenz is a pediatric endocrinologist at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine.

Huerta-Saenz feels honored to receive a KL2-Early Stage Investigator award from the Penn State CTSI, and sees it as a unique opportunity in her career as a physician-scientist and pediatric diabetes researcher. “My overall career goal is to create specific nutrition interventions to preserve beta-cell function, to prevent diabetes and to reduce the pancreatic islet inflammation in children with T1D,” she said.

Most children/youth with Type 1 diabetes (T1D) can develop a partial remission within three months of initial diagnosis, but only a few remain in partial remission after one year. Huerta-Saenz’s clinical trial will investigate the underlying nutrition and inflammation factors associated with the development of partial remission of T1D, with an overall goal of increasing partial remission odds in more children with T1D.

“I aim to determine whether the implementation of an anti-inflammatory diet will prolong the residual beta-cell function and reduce systemic inflammation in children newly diagnosed with T1D,” Huerta-Saenz said. “This is important because achieving prolonged partial remission of T1D means these children could be more likely to have less brittle diabetes, less glycemic variability and overall better quality of life and outcomes.”

Pediatric obesity in rural communities

Alaina Pearce is an assistant research professor at Penn State Social Science Research Institute.

“From a personal perspective, I am excited to be working with all the KL2 scholars,” she said. “This cohort is all women scientists, which is both inspiring and motivating.”

Pearce will study brain mechanisms that support eating behavior and resiliency to obesity in children living in rural areas. She will study brain activity as children view foods and make decisions about food, as well as measure their eating and body composition to determine if food choices and eating behaviors differ by obesity status.

“From a career perspective, the KL2 program is an exciting opportunity to focus on research while building real skills in clinical and translational science,” Pearce said. “Together, this will help me improve and expand my research, which aims to identify brain and behavior processes that make children more resilient to pediatric obesity.”

Cardiovascular health and gardening

Susan Veldheer is an assistant professor of family and community medicine and public health sciences at Penn State College of Medicine.

“This award will provide me with the opportunity to work with a cross-disciplinary team of talented and innovative scientists to develop a multicomponent digital intervention that will teach people who have never gardened how to start, tend and prepare food from a garden,” she said. “It is an amazing opportunity and I can’t wait to get started!”

Gardening is a single activity that has the potential to impact multiple health behaviors that contribute to cardiovascular disease. Food gardeners are much more likely to eat the recommended daily serving of fruit and vegetables and many gardening activities are also considered moderate to vigorous physical activity. Veldheer will develop digital intervention content in partnership with Penn State Extension and her team will conduct focus groups with a variety of stakeholders and adults at risk for cardiovascular disease so that they can further refine the intervention.

“A challenge when trying to change health behavior is to motivate people to continue the healthy habits that they learned,” Veldheer said. “One of the main reasons people garden is because they enjoy it. Since enjoyment is a well-known behavioral motivator, fostering a sense of enjoyment will be a very important part of our work.”

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