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

 
 

Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local leaders joined the stage for the Ten Across summit in Houston this week. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has an integral role to play in the energy transition, and that role was thoroughly discussed at a recent conference taking place in the Bayou City.

This week, Houston hosted the 10X Summit: The Future Is Here, an event by Ten Across — an organization that focuses on social, economic, and climate change issues across the region around Interstate 10 from Los Angeles to Jacksonville. The three-day conference featured guest speakers who spoke to resiliency, water, the future of energy, and more.

Among these speakers included a handful of Houston researchers, political figures, and innovators — and much of their conversations overlapped related topics and themes, from Hurricane Harvey's legacy and impact on the business community to the role the city will play in the energy transition.

When it comes to the energy transition, here are the key messages Houston leaders shared with 10X attendees.

The energy transition can't happen without Houston

The topic of the energy transition came up right out of the gate for the summit. At the welcome reception on Tuesday, Bobby Tudor, CEO of Artemis Energy Partners and founder and former CEO of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., spoke to the evolution of the industry and how Houston is a major factor in the energy transition's success.

“I don’t think (the energy transition) is going to happen without (Houston)," Tudor says at the fireside chat with Wellington Reiter, executive director of Ten Across. "There's a notion that the transition is inevitable. It’s inevitable — only if our technology continues to advance and improve, only if new assets get deployed, only if capital supports it, and only if the people who know and understand the energy systems are leaning in to make it happen.”

For Tudor, who served as chair of the Greater Houston Partnership in 2020 and made it his mission to communicate the importance of industry evolution during his tenure, Houston businesses motivated by opportunities in business should be looking at the energy transition.

“We’re very good in Houston that, when we see a dollar bill lying on the ground, we bend over and pick it up. Right now, there’s fantastic opportunity in the energy transition space," he says. "We have both a responsibility and an opportunity to be the leaders in the global energy transition.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner in his chat with Reiter on Thursday addressed how some might think that Houston — a headquarters for some of the biggest oil and gas giants — might not be the right city to lead a cleaner energy system, but Turner argued that's exactly why it has to happen here.

“We are the energy capital of the world," he says. "The reality is we have some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters principally located right here in Houston. To the extent of leading an energy transition, the impact is not just locally. The impact is globally.”

Barbara Burger, former president of Chevron Technology Ventures and an energy tech startup mentor and investor, explained how integral the relationship between the energy industry and Houston is.

“As the energy system evolves, so does Houston," she says. “I think it’s our opportunity to lose."

The role of corporate incumbents 

Burger's discussion, which took place on Wednesday, spoke to the role of incumbents — corporations that have been operating in the energy industry for decades — in the transition. She explained how the process can't move forward without these parties.

“The incumbents need to be a part of the energy transition. There are parts of our society that don’t want them to be, and I find that unfortunate," she says. "For one, we’re not going to decarbonize the energy system unless they are a part of it. Two, there are a lot of skills and capabilities and assets in the incumbents to do that.

"What I don’t think the incumbents will do is they won’t lead it," she continues. "Many will be leaders in the new energy system, but they won’t be the ones first up the hill.”

Burger compares the energy and the automotive industries. Tesla acted as a disruptor to major auto companies, and then they followed suit. The disruptors and catalysts the energy industry will be a combination of startups, investors, governments, universities, and employee bases.

“We’re not going to throw away the current energy system," she says. "We’re going to evolve it and repurpose it.”

Houston has the ingredients

Tudor addressed the existing infrastructure — from physical pipes to expertise and workforce — that Houston has, which makes for an ideal location for innovation and progress in the transition.

“For a lot of reasons, it’s very clear that unless Houston leans in, we’re not going to find the solutions we need to transition our energy systems to much lower CO2 emissions," he says.

The GHP established the Houston Energy Transition Initiative in 2021 to concentrate Houston efforts within the future of energy. Tudor says this initiative is focused on what can be done now in town — attracting clean energy startups, developing a hydrogen hub, building facilities for green hydrogen production — to lead to a better future.

“We want to look up 20 years from now and find Houston is still — if not more than ever — the energy capital of the world," he says. "We believe that energy systems globally in 20 years will look quite different from how they look today. And that means Houston will look very different from how it looks today."

Burger emphasized some of the challenges — as well as opportunities — the city has considering its long history within the sector.

“Houston has benefitted from a vibrant, strong U.S. energy industry,” she says. “Keeping strong companies and keeping Houston attractive for the energy business is critical.”

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