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 your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston for December. Photo via Getty Images

Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this December — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


December 1 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

The Division of Energy and Innovation, along with the UH Center for Carbon Management in Energy, are hosting a day-long symposium to discuss pathways and solutions to make Texas carbon neutral by 2050. UH experts and energy industry partners will serve as panelists to discuss the drivers, opportunities, and challenges for change, and more.

The event is on Thursday, December 1, from 9 am to 7 pm, at University of Houston (Houston Room - University of Houston Student Center South). Click here to register.

December 5 — Pumps & Pipes: Ion to Infinity

Highlighting innovations in Web3, Artificial Intelligence, Extended Reality, and Robotics, attendees will hear from visionaries across medicine, energy, and aerospace who are developing and launching technologies in these fields.

The event is on Monday, December 5, from 8 am to 3 pm at The Ion. Click here to register.

December 6 — Softeq Venture Studio Demo Day

The Softeq Venture Studio's 2H 2022 cohort is the largest yet with 22 member companies, which brings the total portfolio to 49 companies. This cohort includes entrepreneurs from several global locations as diverse as the United Kingdom, Iceland, Mexico, and Peru. In this capstone event, founders have three minutes each to present their pitch deck, demo their product, outline their ask, and answer questions.

The event is on Tuesday, December 6, from 8 am to 3 pm at The Ion. Click here to register.

December 7 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event, celebrating over 500 veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses.

The event is on Wednesday, December 7, from 6 to 8 pm at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

December 8 — 8th Annual SWPDC Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation and Business Meeting:

The 8th Annual SWPDC Symposium on Pediatric Device Innovation and Business Meeting will feature the keynote presentation "Non-Dilutive Federal Funding for Pediatric Device Startups" by Michael Heffernan, Director of Research & Technology at Fannin Innovation Studio.

The event is on Thursday, December 8, from 4 to 7 pm, at the Queensbury Theatre. Click here to register.

December 8 — HAN Holiday Party

Join the Houston Angel Network for their annual party.

The event is on Thursday, December 8, from 6 to 8 pm, at Postino City Centre. Click here to register.

December 10 — TXRX Holiday Make-a-thon

Get your festive fun on by participating in one of our hands-on workshops. Learn more about how we make through our live demos.

The event is on Saturday, December 10, from 3 to 6 pm, at TXRX. Click here to register.

December 13 — Future of the Houston Region

The reimagined Future of the Houston Region event features one of the fastest-growing areas in the Houston region - Montgomery County. Conversations will be focused on the county’s rapid growth, business developments within the area, future plans of expansion and its overall importance to the region.

The event is on Tuesday, December 13, from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott. Click here to register.

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