“Like riding a bike”: Bates, Tomasson manage multiple collaborations

Marie and Pierre Curie. Carl and Gerty Cori. Successful partnerships in science are not entirely novel. However, Michael Tomasson, MD, sees his relationship with his wife and primary collaborator, Melissa Bates, PhD, closer to the one betweenfictional detective Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Watson, the talented battlefield physician, spent his days dissecting Sherlock’s complex mind and following him along on adventures. Tomasson casts himself in the Watson role to Bates’s Sherlock.

“Bates made it a habit of demonstrating I’m wrong,” Tomasson said. The professor in Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplantation went on, “I still remain sort of dazzled to this day by her ability to make these leaps and do these amazing experiments.”

Tomasson is too humble, Bates, associate professor in Health and Human Physiology, is quick to point out. As a physician scientist, Tomasson, she says, battles blood cancer and is a fierce defender of his patients, but he is also an internationally recognized scientist and expert in the genetics of blood cancer. Bates and Tomasson leverage their unique perspectives in their work and often turn to each other for advice. Recently, when Tomasson mentioned a desire to become more involved in scientific mentorship and education, Bates advised him to join the American Physiological Society (APS).

Connecting physiology and medicine
A global leader in physiology since its founding in 1887, the APS is composed of a network of nearly 10,000 physiologists, physicians, and other health professionals. “I think that physiology really is a cornerstone of medicine,” Bates said. “And so it seems very natural to have people like Michael involved in this group. A big goal of the society is to figure out how to involve more physicians in the group.”

Bates, who has been an APS member for 15 years and serves as the Chair of the Respiration Section, is among a group of members working to define the connections between physiology and medicine.

“I really like APS because it’s very welcoming to new scientists, who maybe would get lost in a big clinical meeting, but really have an opportunity here to network and integrate,” Bates said.

Its focus on trainee mentorship seemed like an excellent fit for Tomasson. He also was recently appointed as the Awards Committee Chair for the society’s Physiological-Omics Group as the Awards Committee Chair. The APS’ -Omics Group provides a forum for physiologists interested in -omic-related sciences, such as genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, systems biology, computational biology, bioinformatics, genetics and gene manipulation, and molecular intervention. As Chair, Tomasson will facilitate the administration of trainee, distinguished lectureship, and outstanding new investigator awards. He says he looks forward to encouragingphysicians, researchers, and students who are exploring translational research. Tomasson’s addition to the APS strengthens the connectionbetween the bench and the bedside.

The two are not the only Iowa connection to the APS. As the editor of the APS’s journal, Journal of Applied Physiology,Sue Bodine, PhD, is another member representing the University of Iowa and supporting the medical-physiology intersection. Tomasson and Bates recently published a physician-physiologist collaboration in the journal. In this case study, their team examined a patient with acute leukemia who had a decreased amount of oxygen in his blood. Applying physiology, the team determined that hypoventilation, anemia, and beta-blockers collaborated to create a “perfect storm” of oxygen deficiency.

One partnership leading to many more
This publication is only one of many Tomasson-Bates collaborations. The current form of their partnership did not emerge overnight. Tomasson and Bates initially connected as professional colleagues over social media. Both agreedthat scientific information should be more accessible and wanted to eliminate the communication barriers between the public and physicians and researchers.

“We met around the idea of how to communicate science effectively to the public, which I think we both agree is a major responsibility, particularly of people who accept public funding,” Bates said. “We have a responsibility to tell the public what we’re doing with their investment.”

As the two researchers continued to collaborate around science communication, their professional and personal relationships developed. Bates specializes in neonatal and pediatric physiology, while Tomasson studies multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that develops as people age. With specialties at opposite ends of the age spectrum, the pair believed that they could never collaborate scientifically. However, in 2016, the duo began seriously considering experiments where there might be overlap. Several studies suggested that people who have sleep apnea and stop breathing while they sleep are at a higher risk of solid tumor cancers.

Combining their two interests, the duo saw a possibility that sleep apnea, with an effect on cardiopulmonary development in neonates, could drive blood cancer. Tomasson admits he was initially skeptical, but their first experiment ended up being a success.

“We were doing the experiment, and he went out of town to attend a conference,” Bates said. “And as soon as he left town, the animals started developing a disease that looked like multiple myeloma.” The two published their findings in the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative, and Comparative Physiology, another APS journal.

A new lab is formed
This original experiment opened the door to additional collaborations between Tomasson and Bates. Although the pair originally maintained their separate labs, they eventually combined their labs into the the Laboratory of Integrative Pathophysiology and Genetics (IPG Lab), which considers the role of genetics, environment, and physiology in disease prevention and treatment. The IPG Lab creates a strong community among its extensive team of managers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduate students by valuing individual autonomy and diversity.

Marrying physiology and medicine, their lab collaborates with interdisciplinary researchers and students in subspecialties like immunology, biochemistry, neurology, pulmonology, oncology, critical care, and pediatrics. Through team-based collaboration, they aim to support the professional development and careers of each member. With a diverse team of researchers with varied levels of expertise, Tomasson and Bates strongly believe in working compassionately with each member.

“Along my training, I’ve watched as people have done extraordinarily well, but wound up sort of bumping their heads on a sort of absurdly high set of expectations,” Tomasson said. “It’s sort of a new thing to meet people where they are and give them bite-sized chunks to move the project forward and make progress.”

Training the next generation
For the past two years, Mackenzie Berschel has worked as an undergraduate member of the lPG Lab. Berschel’s grandmother passed away from multiple myeloma, and the IPG lab’s myeloma work intrigued Berschel.

“The knowledge we have about this disease now gives me hope for patients and has helped me truly understand the power of research,” Berschel said. “Dr. Bates and Dr. Tomasson promote a collaborative space and strongly encourage other lab members to work together even if their projects do not perfectly coincide.”

Since joining the lab, Berschel’s career aspirations have shifted, and she now plans to include research in her future. After graduating this fall, Berschel hopes to complete her master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences and eventually become a pediatric hematologist-oncologist.

“My favorite part of being at the University of Iowa has been being a member of the IPG Lab, and I could not thank Dr. Bates and Dr. Tomasson more for all they have taught me,” Berschel said.

In the IPG Lab, the principal investigators ensure each member can contribute while gaining research experience. HardikKalra witnessed this firsthand while searching for research opportunities as an undergraduate. After hearing about the IPG Lab as a sophomore, he began attending lab meetings.

“At that time, I was just like, ‘I want to be in this lab,’” Kalra said. “This is the lab that I want to be in. And I think from that point on, I just kind of kept showing up to meetings until they just kind of accepted the fact that I’m going to be part of this. I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Three and a half years later, Kalra is now a graduate student working towards his master’s degree in Human Physiology and still works in the IPG Lab. After working with researchers and clinicians from all kinds of backgrounds, Kalra aspires to be a physician scientist with a focus on oncology and physiology.

“When somebody new comes to the lab, we’ve talked to them about their career goals, what they’re hoping to get out of working with us, etc.,” Bates said. “Our philosophy is that if you support people’s careers, the science will come from that. If everyone feels like they’re supported and cared for, they’ll want to work in a team.”

Momentum balances the bicycle
For Tomasson and Bates, support is an integral part of their lab’s ecosystem and their personal relationship. The pair only merged their labs so their researchers would not be running between the two separate labs for a Bates-Tomasson collaboration.

“For me, I don’t see it as working with my spouse,” Bates said. “I work with Michael because he’s a brilliant scientist. He has ideas that I think are fascinating.”

With five kids, they separate their work and home lives. When Bates and Tomasson return home from a long day in the lab, they are strictly spouses and parents. All scientific disagreements are left at the front door because the duo believes their personal relationship is entirely separate from their relationship as colleagues. Tomasson found that many students are surprised to hear Tomasson and Bates have other interests outside of science.

“They assume that we constantly talk about science, but when we leave work, we love to ride our bikes,” Tomasson said. “We love independent films. We love going out to eat. We love hiking. We do all that and not talk about work.”

However, Bates would not necessarily consider this work-life balance.

“I would say that the idea that there’s a work-life balance implies the falsehood that everybody in your life is going to be satisfied all the time,” Bates said. “I think as women we hold ourselves to that very high standard. That we should be satisfying everybody all the time. And that is an attitude that I think creates a lot of feelings of guilt and burnout in professional women.”

For Bates and Tomasson’s family, they prioritize boundaries and compassion. The pair work together to coordinate childcare and work responsibilities. If Tomasson is attending, Bates knows to keep a lighter workload and take on the childcare duties. When Bates teaches or needs to travel, Tomasson respects her busy schedule and knows to keep his schedule light for that week. Whether they are spouses or principal investigators, the duo continues to support one another’s goals.

“I look at balancing work and life like riding a bike,” Tomasson said. “You’re never really balanced because you’d be standing still. There are sort of ebbs and flows. It’s really hard to stand still on a bicycle and just be balanced, so you need to sort of keep moving and adapting.”

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