To be accepted into the Harvard Catalyst KL2/Medical Research Investigator Training (MeRIT) program in 2014 was tremendously exciting for Joseph Mancias, MD, PhD, not only because of its salary support, but also its extensive mentoring opportunities.
“The program provides young faculty like me with a roadmap, resources, and mentoring to navigate the difﬁcult transition to becoming an independent investigator,” says Mancias, whose research project focuses on the inhibition of glutaminase and other potential new therapeutic approaches for pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers.
“The program is a great gap ﬁller for those in the early stages of clinical and translational research careers,” explains Anthony Hollenberg, MD, former program director of KL2/CMeRIT. “They are not quite scientiﬁcally mature enough to get grants on their own yet, but have great ideas and potential.”
The KL2/CMeRIT program has a total of 22 slots and is extremely competitive, says Hollenberg, who is also chief of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. In the last two years there were close to 90 applicants for 11 available slots. “But someone lucky enough to get in will have all the tools necessary to succeed,” he says. Although it’s a two-year program, essentially awardees can graduate earlier if they obtain their own NIH or other funding to continue their research projects.
It has become increasingly difﬁcult to stay in research because of the necessity for investigators to obtain their own funding – from federal grants, foundations, nonproﬁt organizations, and benefactors. “These kinds of programs are critical because they create the next generation that, through research, will improve healthcare and meet the unmet needs in this country and around the world,” Hollenberg says.
The program funds 50-75 percent of an awardee’s salary and typically requires committing 75 percent of professional time to research and program activities. Says Caron Jacobson, MD, a 2014 awardee at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “It’s a wonderful beneﬁt to have dedicated time to devote to my research project. Ordinarily the clinic pulls you away, as you have to pay your salary somehow.”
“A research mentor in the laboratory is great, but it is also important to have other mentors not directly involved in your research,” Hollenberg says.
Each awardee starts with his or her own laboratory mentor. But the program additionally provides each with a personal multidisciplinary advisory committee to review project progress and offer complementary expertise, such as on genetics, biomarkers, biostatistics, or imaging. “A research mentor in the laboratory is great, but it is also important to have other mentors not directly involved in your research,” Hollenberg says.
“It’s extremely valuable to get their fresh perspectives,” agrees Jacobson, whose project focuses on mantle cell lymphoma and the effects, at the gene and genetic expression level, of inhibiting HP-90, a protein with action on multiple cancer growth and signaling pathways.
Awardees design a personal continuing education curriculum using the full range of Harvard Catalyst resources, such as the Advanced Curriculum Compendium. For example, a researcher who is creating a large-scale study may need a biostatistics course. Other courses include: Study Coordination and Management, Human Research Policies and Regulatory Affairs, Devices and Biologics, Research Tools, and GRASP, a very popular workshop on grant writing.
All awardees convene once a month for either a guest lecture – on such disparate subjects as stem cell biology, medical ethics, drug development, and new technologies in science – or for research presentations by two of their fellow awardees. Group interests range widely, says Hollenberg, from stem cells to HIV infection in Africa. “We get to exchange ideas and hear about some of the best science going on,” he says.
More than 90 percent of graduates of the program stay in academic research, most obtaining faculty appointments at their institutions. Acceptance into the program, as Mancias observes, “Marks you as someone successful in getting a grant and puts you on the radar as a potential candidate for a faculty position.”