Clinician-Scientist Training Program in Otolaryngology

Zhen Jason Qian, a T32 clinician-scientist trainee, at work in the lab. 

Dr. Oghalai and Dr. Cheng recently received word that they will be getting an NIH grant to start the Clinician-Scientist Training Program in Otolaryngology at Stanford. Below are excerpts from the grant proposal, which give an idea of this new exciting program:

Rationale for the proposed research training program:

Basic science, translational, and clinical research in Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery is making remarkable advances that affect the way we treat patients. One concrete example of how NIDCD-sponsored research has directly improved the lives of patients is with cochlear implants. NIDCD-funded research has led to many advances in cochlear implant technology that have made this device highly functional and life-changing for an ever-widening range of newborns, children, and adults.

A critical component of nourishing and expanding such improvements in patient care is to facilitate the partnership of clinicians and basic scientists. One way to achieve this is by training more clinician-scientists. Clinician-scientists, defined loosely as clinicians who both take care of patients and perform high-quality research, form this bridge because they understand and are competent in both fields. In the clinics, they work hand-in-hand with their clinical colleagues to care for patients; in the lab, they work independently adjacent to their basic scientist colleagues and collaborate with them on basic and translational research projects.

Structured research training programs that guide clinical trainees through in-depth, high-quality, focused research training over an extended and dedicated time period have a track record of generating clinician-scientists. Training more clinician-scientists is important because medical education has been changing over the last few decades to de-emphasize research. However, the need for improved research training in otolaryngology is particularly pressing because although our specialty attracts resident applicants of exceptional ability, very few otolaryngologists hold NIH funding, especially R01’s. It is important to train individuals who will focus their research efforts on questions that have the potential for great clinical benefit, and hence have a high potential for improving the lives of patients world-wide even though it may take decades to see achievable results. While there is no doubt that academic research positions are difficult to come by, they are available to well-qualified otolaryngologists who have had appropriate training and strive to become an independent clinician-scientist. At a bare minimum, research training improves medical care in a general way by enhancing a physician’s ability to critically evaluate the medical-scientific literature and update his/her knowledge base in the course of a long career.

Herein, we propose to implement a research training program designed to cultivate clinician-scientists who are interested in studying inner ear development, regeneration, function, and physiology. These research areas are targeted because they encompass the strengths of the faculty that make up the research division in the Stanford Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. In addition, research in these areas has a high potential for leading to clinical benefits within the next 2-3 decades…

Our research training program is designed to provide residents and post-residency graduates with intense research experiences, a structured didactic program, and close mentorship and guidance in how to integrate clinical and research activities. Trainees will be ingrained with the philosophy that research is intrinsic to an academic surgeon’s career and that they should build their career by sustaining excellence in both research and clinical care. If our training program is successful, our graduates will become independent NIDCD-funded investigators in faculty positions in academic departments. The ultimate long-term goal, of course, is for them to improve human health by advancing our field via scientific discovery that is translated to clinical care.

We believe that the ability to combine clinical training together with research training of the highest caliber (there are seven program faculty included in this application), in a department that is dedicated towards sustaining clinician-scientists (as evidenced by the four clinician-scientist faculty that hold one or more R01 grants), will be a huge draw for the top applicants in our specialty. Many of the trainees will not only work with the program faculty, but also with additional Stanford faculty from other departments within and outside the School of Medicine. This offers the opportunity for a diverse training experience that permits trainees to access the excellence that exists throughout the Stanford University faculty. A distinctive feature of this training program is the emphasis on providing mentorship throughout their entire combined clinical-research training period. Mentors include not only a Primary Research Mentor, but also a Secondary Clinician-Scientist Mentor and an Individual Research Committee.

Our program also contains a structured didactic program, multiple journal clubs, a weekly seminar series, and a monthly visiting basic science lectureship series. In addition, there are a wide range of additional training opportunities at Stanford specifically designed for post-doctoral fellows, such as training in the responsible conduct of research, statistical analysis, how to write a scientific paper, grantsmanship, negotiating for your first position, and a wide range of classes available for auditing, etc. Thus, trainees in this program will have a unique opportunity to build a career as clinician-scientists in a strongly-supportive environment that is exuberantly pushing the boundaries of research and clinical training in otolaryngology.