Lessons from the Inflammation Program’s sustained decades of success

“I think that mutual commitment is essential to creating and sustaining a collaborative environment.” Josalyn Cho, MD, is nearly two years into her role as director of the Iowa Inflammation Program. The associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Occupational Medicine succeeded William Nauseef, MD, in spring of 2021.

The goals that guided Nauseef in 1998 when he formed the program continue to drive the interdisciplinary team of researchers now led by Cho today. Eleven faculty members from the Departments of Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, Microbiology & Immunology, and Anatomy & Cell Biology combine their shared interest in the biology of inflammation and how it impacts disease.

More than just improving understanding of immune mechanisms or lending their core discoveries to other researchers within the Carver College of Medicine, Cho said the Iowa Inflammation Program also provides “outstanding training for the next generation of PhD- and physician-scientists.” In just the last couple years, several of those PhD students and post-doctoral fellows have graduated and taken their next steps into independent research careers.

Graduation rates are not the only measure of the program’s recent success. Members have had two new R01 grant applications funded by the National Institutes of Health and another had a VA Merit Award approved. Additionally, a T32 training grant in Mechanisms of Parasitology led by Mary Wilson, MD, was successfully renewed and Pediatrics’ Jennifer Bermick, MD, was among the inaugural class of Stead Family Scholars. The steady stream of publications emerging from everyone’s work at the bench and the bedside is also evidence of their work’s value to the scientific community.

That mutual commitment that Cho cites as part of the program’s success is more than a belief that better science emerges when ideas are shared. There are practical demonstrations of community for the members. “All members of the group are assigned ‘community responsibilities,’” Cho explained. Each week, the whole program meets, and members have the “opportunity to share updates related to their responsibilities, voice concerns, or bring forward new ideas.”

Bi-weekly “Work in Progress” meetings allow trainees to share with assigned mentors and other faculty what they are working on. They solicit feedback both to know whether they are on track and where their work can be refined or redirected.

Trainees are not the only focus for support. Junior faculty at the rank of assistant professor are also assigned mentors, and a mentorship committee meets four times a year to “review the faculty member’s progress, identify new opportunities and needs, and discuss promotion.” Cho says the group also provides informal “peer review” on grant applications.

Cho is grateful for the program’s “genuine sense of community, fellowship, and shared interest in seeing our members succeed” and cites it as an essential ingredient. But she also offers practical examples that other research collaboratives could adopt if they have not already. “Develop a clear communication structure to exchange ideas, provide feedback, raise concerns, and generate a sense of community.”

That last element—community—is the focus of another piece of advice. “Spend time together – whether it’s time spent mentoring or on social activities or group events, I think the most important component of collaboration is building and maintaining relationships with people.”

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