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Translational Research Training Program welcomes seven new students

Graduate students with varied research interests including placental disease, movement and the brain, immune response to a bacterial pathogen, protein structure in neurons, DNA mutations in breast cancer, parent feeding practices, and behavioral inhibition have started a year of training in clinical and translational sciences.

The TL1 Translational Research Training Program is a yearlong opportunity offered by Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute. It teaches the next generation of scientists the skills to move research efficiently out of the laboratory to benefit patients in the health care system.

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

“A key function of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute is to foster the development of a well-trained translational science workforce,” said Gail Thomas, PhD, co-director of the TL1 program at Hershey. “Our goal is to help students who are just beginning their research careers to develop a holistic understanding of the steps involved in translating research findings into novel health interventions. With this knowledge, TL1 scholars are better prepared to meet the challenges of conducting high impact translational research leading to new treatments, devices, and technologies to improve human health.”

The program is highly customizable. Each TL1 scholar creates a tailored curriculum focused on key areas of emphasis. These areas include epidemiology, biostatistics, bioinformatics, bioethics and regulatory science, experimental design and interpretation, and scientific communication. Scholars also receive training in translational science tools, including the i2b2 research population discovery tool and REDCap secure electronic data capture tool, both supported by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“We are pleased to welcome our new TL1 scholars for 2019-2020,” said Connie Rogers, PhD, co-director of the program at University Park. “We look forward to working with this diverse, highly motivated group of students as they begin their translational research training. Selected from programs in biomedical sciences, kinesiology, nutritional sciences, pathobiology, and developmental psychology, they are eager to add translational science competencies to their research portfolios.”

Seven students started the program in August and will finish in July. Funding includes a 12-month stipend, 60 percent tuition (fall and spring semesters) and travel support. See detailed program information here. Applications for the 2020-2021 program will be accepted beginning in January 2020.

TL1 program scholars for 2019-2020 are Celeste Beck, Brooke Fosaaen, Jessica Heebner, McKayla Nicol, Maryknoll Palisoc, Cara Ruggiero and Elizabeth Youatt. Their research interests are:

Placenta and health

Celeste Beck is a doctoral student in the dual-title nutritional sciences and clinical and translational sciences program.

“I have a strong interest in the clinical application of research findings,” Beck said. “My goal is to work in conjunction with an academic medical center to conduct clinic-based nutrition and reproductive health research and then to apply research findings in the clinical setting. I feel that the program will provide training to help me achieve those goals.”

Beck is studying the relationship between placenta growth during pregnancy and the future health of the mother and newborn, beyond delivery.

“The purpose of this research is to compile information that can help clinicians to provide more targeted care to women and newborns who experienced placental disease during pregnancy,” she said. “Future research will tie in nutritional associations with placental disease.”

How the brain controls movement

Brook Fosaaen is a doctoral student in kinesiology. She will receive a certificate in translational science through the program.

“While studying at University of Northern Iowa, I discovered a passion for health care, specifically rehabilitation, so I applied to graduate programs in occupational therapy,” Fosaaen said. “I was accepted into the doctoral program at Washington University in St. Louis, but during my studies there, I began to notice gaps in rehabilitation protocol and evidence. It was at this point that I decided to pursue a field in research, rather than clinical practice.”

Fosaaen’s research is on how the different sides of the brain control movement.

“I am looking at how this movement is affected when someone has a stroke,” she said. “I hope to advance the field of rehabilitation by better understanding the underlying problems that occur during neurological diagnoses, such as stroke.

Studying protein structure

Jessica Heebner is a doctoral student in the dual-title biomedical science and clinical and translational science program.

“I believe translational training is important, especially for someone with a goal of transitioning into industry,” Heebner said. “The classes I’ve taken as part of the clinical and translational science program have helped me broaden my perspective and guide all of my research towards the goal of bridging the gap between basic research and clinical relevance.”

Heebner studies cell and protein structure using an electron microscope.

“We use electron microscopes to look at developing neurons suspended in very thin sheets of ice,” she said. “We are interested in studying the proteins in our neurons so that we can better understand what is occurring in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.”

Immune responses to a bacterial pathogen

McKayla Nicol is a doctoral student in the dual-title pathobiology and clinical and translational science program.

“Upon completion of my PhD program, I would like to obtain an industry-based post-doctoral position with a focus on drug discovery and development as well as alternative treatment methods for both acute and chronic diseases,” Nicol said. “I feel that participating in the TL1 program will uniquely benefit me in exposing me to a wide breadth of topics in the life sciences and the clinical field.”

Nicol is studying immune responses to a bacterial pathogen called Francisella tularensis. “The goal is to identify novel targets for improved vaccine development,” she said.

Nicol is also a member of the Kirimanjeswara lab and currently working with the Low-Temperature Plasma Science and Engineering group investigating biomedical applications of low-temperature plasmas.

Role of DNA mutations in breast cancer

Maryknoll Palisoc is an MD/PhD student and is in her first year in the biomedical sciences graduate program. She will receive a graduate certificate in translational science through the program.

“My previous experiences have primarily focused on basic and translational research using cellular, molecular and immunological lab techniques,” she said. “Hence, I would like to augment my knowledge and skills by building competence in the area of multidimensional data and implementation science.”

She is studying the DNA mutations that assist a gene found in up to 50 percent of aggressive breast cancer.

“My goal is to identify mutations that drive the progression of breast cancer by using an extensively studied mouse model,” she said. “I will then validate these genes by analyzing a database of breast cancer tumors, which may help facilitate the identification of novel mutations as therapeutic targets or a diagnostic tool.”

Parent feeding practices

Cara Ruggiero is a doctoral student in nutritional sciences. She will receive a certificate in translational science through the program.

“I applied to the TL1 program to gain protected research time to learn novel quantitative analysis skills for my dissertation work,” she said. “I also applied to have access to networking and mentoring opportunities available through this program, which will enable me to form collaborations and translate my research findings to families across clinical and community settings in the future. After working with clinical teams as part of my training as a dietitian and then experiencing multidisciplinary collaborations working in public health research, I have seen the need for all stages of translation in research and how clinical findings can be translated into other settings.”

Ruggiero’s research focuses on parent feeding practices.

“I study how control-based feeding such as the use of food to soothe infant distress influences the development of obesity,” Ruggiero said. “I am interested in examining parent feeding in the context of birth order.”

Behavioral inhibition

Elizabeth Youatt is a doctoral student in developmental psychology. She will receive a certificate in translational science in the program.

“I am interested in clinical and translational science because I enjoy tackling research questions from multiple directions to understand better both the origins and outcomes of health and disease,” she said. “I initially became involved in research in a lab of clinical psychologists but ultimately did not want to see clients or patients myself, so I decided to focus my career on research instead. It is important for me to collaborate with clinicians, so my work and findings will translate to a broader picture of improving the health of developing individuals.”

Youatt studies the biological contributors of behavioral inhibition, characterized as early as toddlerhood and marked by behavioral avoidance, withdrawal, extreme wariness and fearfulness, particularly in new, unfamiliar, or social situations.

“It is a known predictor for anxiety and depression,” Youatt said. “Examining the underlying biological mechanisms throughout development will allow for more effective clinical interventions that address risk factors and economic concerns involved in potential negative health outcomes from these mental health disorders.”

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