There's a growing need for physician-scientists who can see from both sides of the table. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Physician-scientists are a group of specialized researchers at the intersection of medicine and technology. Earning both medical degrees and Ph.D.s, they offer a perspective beyond the scope of clinical practice.

Three such researchers discussed how they make the connections between discovery and patient care.

Why a dual education matters

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor of biology and biochemistry, knows exactly what the clinical demands are.

"I can see from the M.D. perspective, but at the same time I have a Ph.D. — I know how to design research properly," he says. "In the clinic, you're faced with reality that a patient is struggling but you don't have the tools to treat those patients. If you engage in research you can create a tool."

Zhang says clinicians know the need but may struggle to design a solution. A Ph.D., on the other hand, may only know basic research.

Renowned hormone researcher Jan-Åke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch professor of biology and biochemistry and founding director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, agrees.

"The dual education makes it possible for you to see which diseases are in need of more research, drugs and so on," he says.

Physician-scientists are the driving force behind many advances of modern medicine.

"The way I look at it is, practicing medicine is relatively easy but coming up with the next diagnostic device or the next treatment for a disease is way more difficult, way more challenging," says Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed professor of biomedical engineering at UH.

"You see patients with certain diseases, and you know there's a dire need for better diagnostics, earlier treatment, earlier diagnosis with fewer side effects," he says.

While researchers spend time primarily in the laboratory and clinical practitioners interact with patients, they both want to make an impact.

"We have made some discoveries which have led to the development of new drugs and better understanding of certain diseases," says Gustafsson. "There's a great satisfaction that it may help people to get healthy."

Traditional research brings value to a university

The synergy of this dual education makes these investigators valuable not only to academia, but also to medical science.

"I can't imagine doing translational research without medical training," Zhang says. "If you have this part without the other, you don't know where to go. With medical training, you know exactly which direction to go."

Mohan echos that assessment.

"When you start doing research there are so many questions you can answer," he says. "Sometimes there are questions which are just too basic. They're too far removed from how it will impact a patient's life. So what are the most important questions? I think questions that really make a difference in the patient's life are the most important."

Zhang notes that the National Institutes of Health has switched its funding philosophy — once focused on basic science, it now is more interested in translational research, with a direct relationship to patient health.

As physician-scientists, these "translators" of medical research are able to bridge the chasm.

Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor of research and technology transfer at UH, says physician-scientists play an important role.

"The increasing importance of deploying technology in medicine renders it essential for a progressive research university to hire medical Ph.D. holders who are in an ideal position to bridge the gap between engineering and science on the one hand, and the broad field of medicine on the other," he says.

Research groups that bring both fields together not only have a much higher probability of impacting lives by adopting the latest technology in medical applications, he adds, but they also give interdisciplinary teams greater access to specific funding pursue such solutions.

In that sense, says Elnashai, medical Ph.D. researchers play an important part of the future research university.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

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Climatetech incubator announces C-suite promotion, Houston jobs, and nonprofit transition

greentown updates

The new year has brought some big news from Greentown Labs.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based climatetech incubator with its second location at Greentown Houston named a new member to its C-suite, is seeking new Houston team members, and has officially finished its transition into a nonprofit.

Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate.

"Now that we are more than 80 members, we need more internal coordination," she explains. "Considering that the goal for Greentown is to grow to more locations, there's going to be more coordination and, I'd say, more autonomy for the Houston campus."

The promotion follows a recent announcement that Emily Reichert, who served as CEO for the company for a decade, has stepped back to become CEO emeritus. Greentown is searching for its next leader and CFO Kevin Taylor is currently serving as interim CEO. Garaizar says the transition is representative of Greentown's future as it grows to more locations and a larger organization.

"Emily's transition was planned — but, of course, in stealth mode," Garaizar says, adding that Reichert is on the committee that's finding the new CEO. "She thinks scaling is a different animal from putting (Greentown) together, which she did really beautifully."

Garaizar says her new role will include overseeing Greentown's new nonprofit status. She tells InnovationMap that the organization originally was founded as a nonprofit, but converted to a for-profit in order to receive a loan at its first location. Now, with the mission focus Greentown has and the opportunities for grants and funding, it was time to convert back to a nonprofit, Garaizar says.

"When we started fundraising for Houston, everyone was asking why we weren't a nonprofit. That opened the discussion again," she says. "The past year we have been going through that process and we can finally say it has been completed.

"I think it's going to open the door to a lot more collaboration and potential grants," she adds.

Greentown is continuing to grow its team ahead of planned expansion. The organization hasn't yet announced its next location — Garaizar says the primary focus is filling the CEO position first. In Houston, the hub is also looking for an events manager to ensure the incubator is providing key programming for its members, as well as the Houston innovation community as a whole.

Photos: Houston coworking company expands with new location

open for biz

Calling all coworkers north of Houston — there's a new spot in town to set up shop.

The Cannon, a coworking company with locations in Houston and Galveston, has expanded north of Houston for the first time. A new Cannon workspace opened at The Park at Fish Creek retail center (618 Fish Creek Thoroughfare) in Montgomery last month. On February 1 at 4 pm, the new community is holding an open house to tour the space.

“The Cannon is a Houston innovation institution, and we meet demand where innovators and entrepreneurs live—in this case, Montgomery County,” says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. “The goal is to grow The Cannon community – and entrepreneurship overall – regionally, via the Fish Creek brick-and mortar space, and to also expand utilization of our digital community platform, Cannon Connect.”

With 8,100 square feet of space, the facility has 19 private offices, three conference rooms, and several gathering and working areas. Memberships — from assigned desks and private space to day passes — are now available. All Fish Creek members receive access to Cannon Connect, a global, digital community platform that provides resources, networking and building blocks for business growth.

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

This Houston entrepreneur is enabling fashion upcycling for more sustainable style

houston innovators podcast episode 170

When shopping online one day, Hannah Le saw a need for a platform that allowed transactions between upcycling fashion designers and shoppers looking for unique, sustainable pieces.

Le created RE.STATEMENT, an online shopping marketplace for upcycled clothing. Before RE.STATEMENT, designers were limited to Etsy, which is focused on handmade pieces, or Poshmark and Depop, which are dedicated to thrift finds. Upcycle fashion designers didn't have their own, unique platform to sell on — and, likewise, shoppers were scattered across sites too.

"These marketplaces are really good for what they do," Le says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "but, whenever I think of someone looking for something unique and sustainable, it's hard for me to imagine finding that on these marketplaces."

The platform soft launched in December with 25 upcycling designers and over 1,200 buyers that had been on the company's waitlist for almost nine months. Now that the site is live, Le hopes to give both buyers and sellers quick access to transactions.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le explains. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

Le says that she started with buyers to see what exactly they were looking for, then she searched and found the designers looking to sell their pieces, and the current platform is dynamic and flexible to the needs of users within her community.

"Even today, it changes every single day depending on how users are interacting with the website and what sellers are saying that they need — really communicating with buyers and sellers is how the marketplace is evolving," she says.

RE.STATEMENT's ability to quickly evolve has been due to its early stage, Le explains on the show. She's not yet taken on institutional funding or hired anyone else other than tech support. She says this allows her to quickly make changes or try out new things for users.

"For me, there are still so many things I want to prove to myself before I bring others involved," she says. "To start, it's coming up with new opportunities for buyers to interact with the website so that we can keep learning from them."

Le has already proven some success to herself. Last year, she took home one of three prizes offered at the city's Liftoff Houston competition. The contest, which gives Houston entrepreneurs pitch practice and mentorship, awarded RE.STATEMENT $10,000 for winning in the product category.

"I wanted to see how far I could go," Le says of the competition where she got to introduce her business to Mayor Sylvester Turner and a whole new audience of people. "I had pitched before, but this was the first time that I was onstage and I just felt like I belonged there."

Le shares more about her vision for RE.STATEMENT and the integral role Houston plays in her success on the show.