The Duke CTSA TL1 postdoctoral program is a new two-year training program that aims to provide two years of funded time to support the research training of outstanding junior scientists. The program welcomes postdoctoral fellows interested in broadening their training and, potentially, including a new category of research methodology. This year, seven new scholars were selected to join the program. Four of them are Bijan Abar, Ashley Choi, Chizoba Nwankwo, and Kirsten Simmons.
Bijan Abar, a third-year medical student at Duke, was selected as a TL1 Scholar and hopes to focus his research on bone defects, specifically those that can occur as a result of trauma, improper healing, or the removal of a tumor. Current treatment methods such as autografts - pieces of surgically transplanted living tissue - have their shortcomings, and Bijan hopes to find ways to overcome them. By using a ketone and Titanium scaffold, Bijan hopes to find a way to optimize the grafting process.
“We will create and test different grafts to find a solution that will integrate with the body’s natural ability to form bone,” he said.
Bijan’s interest in tissue engineering started when he was an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University. During his studies, he saw the potential for technologies like 3D printing to change the medical practice, but he did not have the opportunity to practically apply these theories.
As a new member of the TL1 Scholar program, Bijan is excited to strengthen his understanding of research and statistics and work closely with his fellow scholars. He hopes the expertise he develops will enhance his work in the lab, as well.
“I was really excited when I got accepted,” Bijan said. “This is a fantastic program that gives practical skills for us to succeed as physician scientists, no matter what specialty we are interested in.”
When Ashley Choi was nine years old, her grandfather had a heart attack, and she watched as his health rapidly deteriorated. Her grandfather lived in Korea, and at that time there were technological and medical barriers that made his condition difficult to treat. As a last resort, he was taken to the U.S., where Ashley and her family were, for a transplant at UCLA Medical Center. Ashley still remembers how she and her mother translated for him.
“I remember practicing asking for a new heart for my grandfather,” Ashley said, “For such a young child, that was completely abstract, yet fascinating.”
That experience inspired Ashley—she believed there had to be a better way to care for these patients. As a TL1 Scholar, Ashley plans to look at questions related to urgency-driven heart transplantation outcomes, specifically questions about waitlist mortality and challenges of HLA sensitization in transplant candidates. "Currently, survival to transplantation represents an important and under-examined aspect of the national assessment of transplantation," she added.
As she expands on her ongoing research, Ashley is looking forward to networking with her cohort and receiving opportunities to learn from and collaborate with other clinical scientists at Duke. She applied to the program knowing it would help with her development as an independent investigator, and she couldn’t wait to tell one special person when she was accepted.
“I waited until the morning after I was accepted to tell anyone, because I wanted my grandfather in Korea to be the first to know,” she said.
Chizoba Nwankwo has always been fascinated by muscles groups and how they intertwine with nerves to help perform essential functions in people’s lives. This fascination has led to a specific interest in knee replacements and the power this surgery can have to improve quality of life for those who suffer from intense knee pain.
“Walking is an essential part of life,” she said. “The fact that there is a surgery that can improve that function is amazing—it literally gives people their independence back.”
During her time as a TL1 Scholar, Chizoba hopes to focus her research on risk factors for knee replacement patients prior to surgery. Some factors, such as body-mass index, can be indicative of the patient’s outcome post-surgery. But Chizoba believes there are other psychological factors, such as a patient’s history with depression and other mental illnesses, that can have an effect on a patient’s recovery.
Chizoba was encouraged to apply to the TL1 program by her mentors, Dr. Janet Prvu Better, as well as Dr. Kevin Thomas, and other friends who had previously participated in the program. She is excited to have time devoted to statistical education and analysis, something that will prove beneficial in her ongoing research. She also looks forward to interacting with a variety of Duke students, professors, and scientists, who will contribute their personal experiences in healthcare.
“I like that it’s a group of people coming together to work collaboratively,” Chizoba said. “We’ll be able to learn from each other and become better doctors and professionals - that way, everybody wins.”
As a TL1 Scholar, Kirsten’s research will focus on Vesicoureteral reflux (VUR), a condition that affects up to 1 in every 10 children within the U.S. Decades of clinical research have shown that VUR is associated with long term renal damage and decreased quality of life. The overarching goals of her research will be to analyze the efficacy of current VUR treatment options and influence the development of a national protocol for management of this condition.
Kirsten began her research after getting connected with her mentor, Dr. Jonathan Routh during a urology rotation. “Dr. Routh has a strong background in health services research, and I felt we could approach this problem together given our similar interests,” she said.
Like many students, Kirsten Simmons was attracted to Duke because of its flexible third-year curriculum and the opportunity to work with trailblazers among a host of medical specialties. A stellar reputation is also what attracted her to the TL1 Scholar program. After hearing a presentation on the program, she was drawn to its focus upon clinical/translational research and close mentorship, as well as the opportunity to travel to medical conferences. She is eager to tackle the program’s curriculum, in particular courses about the dissemination of health outcomes research. With the diverse scholar backgrounds and variety of coursework, she’s excited about the opportunity to tailor her TL1 Scholar experience to her developing career path.
“This program fits my ultimate goal of becoming a physician-scientist,” Kirsten said. “I feel so fortunate to attend a university that focuses on evidence-based medicine and innovation.”