Beaker to bedside

University of Houston researchers on why bridging the gap between academia and clinicians is key

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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Building Houston

 
 

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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