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Two training programs educate the next generation of translational scientists

Two Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute programs are educating the next generation of translational scientists. Four medical students and four graduate students participated in this past summer’s Translational Science Fellowship program, and four graduate students recently started the yearlong Translational Research Training Program (TL1). The two programs expose students to clinical and translational science concepts and the importance of converting research findings into practical solutions to health problems.

Translational Science Fellowship

The Translational Science Fellowship program, led by Ira Ropson, is targeted at early-stage learners. The program includes training in both foundational skills like research design and data analysis and professional skills such as communication, ethics and teamwork. Topic presenters use examples of real-world clinical and translational research.

“I found the sessions in which researchers presented their work the most interesting,” medical student Sarah Weber said. “These sessions were thought-provoking in a way that I’m sure positively influences my critical thinking about my research and that of others.”

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.

“The curriculum allowed me to share research progress and ideas with classmates and experts in the field of medicine,” medical student Elise McNulty said. “It was very helpful to talk in real-time about how my research project was progressing. “

This year’s program was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a program built around extensive interaction, students adapted to the situation. They made the best of a virtual environment.

“Since most of my classes had already transitioned to a virtual format, I did not feel uncomfortable with adjusting to another virtual program,” graduate student Amrita Arcot said. “It was certainly disappointing that I was unable to meet my cohort in-person. Nonetheless, I was grateful that I could join the program in any format and learn from all of the incredible speakers.”

“The virtual nature of the program was difficult at first, but Dr. Ropson made the transition to virtual learning very smooth,” added graduate student Jocelyn Delgado. “I was still able to connect with the other students in my cohort through our small break-out sessions where we could talk one-on-one and exchange ideas about our research projects and engage in the activities.”

Translational science emphasizes collaboration between scientific disciplines. The program helps students learn the importance of building partnerships to strengthen health research projects and the role of communication.

“The program taught me how to speak across scientific disciplines,” graduate student Mary Kruk said. “This has already been the most applicable as I continue to collaborate with scientists outside of my primary field of psychology. As a graduate student, I tend to stay within my ‘bubble.’ With  translational skills, I can speak with anyone in any discipline about what I study in a clear, concise and understandable manner.”

“The most applicable components were the sessions related to constructing elevator pitches and presentations, writing abstracts, and designing conference posters,” added medical student Christine Lin. “In fact, it helped me prepare a poster for a recent conference. “

Students expressed gratitude for building skills and exploring an area of study their traditional programs may not offer.

“I sincerely appreciate the opportunity for the time and space to focus on clinical and translational research, which truly expanded my research knowledge base,” graduate student Joanne Roman Jones said. “I am inspired to continue working towards these opportunities, to enhance my research skills and to learn and connect with impressive colleagues.”

Medical student Savreen Saran was also a scholar in the program.

Translational Research Training Program (TL1)

The National Institutes of Health-funded Translational Research Training Program (TL1) supports predoctoral graduate and medical students seeking advanced full-time clinical and translational research training. Graduate students in the TL1 program expand their major course of study by completing a dual-title doctorate in clinical and translational sciences or a graduate certificate in translational science. Medical students complete a master’s degree in public health or clinical research. TL1 scholars are selected each year through a competitive application process.

The program, led by Gail Thomas at Penn State College of Medicine and Connie Rogers at Penn State University Park, is highly customizable. Each scholar creates a tailored curriculum. Areas of focus include epidemiology, biostatistics, bioinformatics, bioethics and regulatory science, experimental design and interpretation, and scientific communication. Scholars also receive training in Clinical and Translational Science Institute-sponsored tools, including the TriNetX research population discovery tool and REDCap research data capture and storage tool.

Four students started the program in August and will finish in July of next year. Funding includes a 12-month stipend, 60% tuition (fall and spring semesters) and travel support. This year’s scholars and their projects are:

The role of a hormone in addiction

Brianna Evans is a student in the MD/PhD Medical Scientist Training Program working toward her medical degree and a doctorate in neuroscience. She will earn a certificate in translational science in the TL1 program.

“One of the reasons why I decided to become a physician-scientist was to help connect the gap between basic sciences and clinical practice, “Evans said. “I felt this program was most suited to give me the translational experience I need and contribute to my desire to close the gap between basic research and clinic. Through this program, I can learn to become a better physician-scientist who can more efficiently conduct bench-to-bedside research.”

Evans is studying the role of a hormone called Glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) in opioid addiction using rats in the laboratory of Sue Grigson. GLP-1 is typically used for the treatment of diabetes and obesity.

“Addiction has been a large public health concern in recent years, especially with the opioid epidemic,” Evans said. “The Grigson lab, with the collaboration of other scientists and physicians, is focused on opioid withdrawal. There has been evidence both in the Grigson lab and in the scientific literature that GLP-1 helps with drug and alcohol abuse withdrawal.”

Evans is specifically studying the role of GLP-1 in reducing rats’ need to seek opioids.

Health outcomes and risk factors

Ashley Flores is a second-year doctoral student in the nutritional sciences program. She will earn a certificate in translational science in the TL1 program.

“I applied to the TL1 program to participate in a guided interdisciplinary training program that will allow me to gain the necessary skills for research in the nutritional sciences field at the translational level,” Flores said. “The program provides the opportunity to advance my academic skills through a tailored curriculum where I can implement my training and learning experiences into my research. By pursuing the certificate in translational science, I will continue to gain exposure to translational research and to engage in scientific communication and academic training from an interdisciplinary approach.”

Flores researches the association between human health outcomes and nutritional and lifestyle risk factors in the older population.

“The expected rise in the aging population underscores the importance of determining factors that may contribute to healthy aging,” Flores said. “The focus of my research project is to investigate the association between nutritional factors like diet or body mass index and lifestyle variables such as quality of life, to health outcomes. We will look at these health outcomes, including mortality, dementia and predictors of becoming a centenarian in an aging rural population.”

A focus on addiction

Bailey Keller is a dual-title PhD student in the clinical and translational sciences and neuroscience programs.

“While I enjoy basic science research, it feels a little far removed from patient treatment,” Keller said. “I want to be able to use my knowledge to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical application. I also want to have a clinical perspective so that I can ask more meaningful research questions in the lab.”

Keller is researching the use of fluoxetine, an antidepressant medicine, in mice to treat alcohol use disorder and binge eating disorder.

“We are also looking at how diet and alcohol are affecting neurocircuitry in areas of the brain that control metabolism,” Keller said. “I want the work that I do in the lab to be medically relevant and ultimately benefit human health. My long-term goals are to move the addiction field forward by exploring the factors that affect substance abuse and behavioral changes as well as how to best address these problems using translational science methods.”

Improving family relationships

Carlie Sloan is a third-year graduate student in human development and family studies. She will earn a graduate certificate in translational science in the TL1 program.

“I applied to the TL1 program to better understand how the core principles of translational science apply to the behavioral sciences, and specifically to intervention programs aimed at improving family life,” Sloan said. “Although the development of family prevention interventions is translational in nature, it is beneficial to learn more concrete information about translational principles, phases, program design, and evaluation, so I can better understand and communicate to others how my work fits in with the broader field of translational science.”

Sloan studies how family members viewing family functioning differently affects developmental outcomes for children.

“For instance, when parents think the family is functioning well, but children have a more negative view of how their family is doing, negative developmental outcomes for children, such as substance use and other delinquent behaviors, are associated,” Sloan said. “I am interested in whether intervention programs designed to improve family relationships, communication, and conflict, can reduce the risk posed to youth development.”

About Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute

Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute provides tools, services and education to make health research more efficient at Penn State and promote collaboration.  To learn more, visit

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