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Introducing the Senior Scientist Seminar Series

Nov. 15, 2021

Have you ever wondered what clinician scientists do? How their training as physicians and curious detectives overlap to fuel research questions that potentially affect hundreds, if not millions of people?

The Heath Transformation Research Institute helps support and develop these clinician scientists in their mission to improve the health of our community and the community at large. Through the Senior Scientist Seminar Series, the institute shines a light on the career paths and impactful scientific contributions of Dell Med faculty. David Paydarfar, chair of the Department of Neurology at Dell Med, kicked off the series in September and invited us into his ongoing 40-year quest studying the underlying mechanism that causes sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. Initially inspired by a Winfree lecture on endogenous rhythms and oscillatory phenomenon as a physics undergraduate, and distraught as a medical student when an infant died from apneic episodes, Paydarfar shared how he connected these events to better understand the phase resetting of infants’ breathing cycle to cause fatal apnea (where a tempo may be knocked off course with a specifically-timed pulse). This launched decades of research into understanding the neurologic mechanism of respiratory control with the goal of identifying a strategy to prevent SIDS. What follows are key takeaways from his discussion.

The importance of quality mentorship cannot be overstated. Mentors help stretch, grow and challenge scientists, and they encourage researchers to develop a novel hypothesis and follow rigorous evidence. As a medical student working in Fred Eldridge’s lab, Eldridge offered contesting advice as to why Paydarfar’s research may not work, while also providing a healthy, playful dose of a “prove me wrong” challenge. Paydarfar accepted this challenge and generated evidence to support his hypothesis, and further accepted a two-year postdoc position to pursue his investigations, all while his research mentor was offering well-meaning naysaying. Thanks to Eldridge’s unwavering challenge to present supporting data, and Paydarfar’s perseverance, Paydarfar made great gains in understanding why rhythms start and stop spontaneously.

Scientific research is an ongoing, iterative process. Scientific research pulls from many disciplines and can offer puzzle pieces to big discoveries that change the health of humans. Although the research was frustrating at times — including stretches in which it seemed like his experiments were not bearing fruit — Paydarfar learned key skills that contributed to his research journey and key findings. His research culminated in the invention of a mat on which infants sleep that is designed to prevent SIDS; this outcome was built upon his accumulation of incremental discoveries and training over 40 years.

Interdisciplinary collaboration is essential for 21st-century scientists. In his talk, Paydarfar offered this advice: “Cultivate smart friends. The ability to bring in other disciplines, other expertise, is priceless. Going into something interdisciplinary is a team sport.” While mentorship may open some doors for collaboration, take the initiative to develop friendships with people in very different fields, and learn from and with them.

To hear more stories about the captivating work being done by Dell Med researchers and scientists, join the next installment of the Health Transformation Research Institute’s Senior Scientist Seminar Series on Dec. 2 from 12-1 p.m., featuring William Matsui presenting "Chutes, Ladders and Cancer Translational Research." Matsui is the deputy director of the Livestrong Cancer Institutes and a professor and Robert E. Askew, Sr., M.D., chair in Dell Med's Department of Oncology.

Register to attend the presentation, and look for additional upcoming events in HTRI's events listing.