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Training a New Generation of Health Researchers

Dec. 15, 2020

Does giving oxygen to a mother in labor actually benefit the baby? Can housing advocacy improve the health of children with asthma? How about virtual well child visits: Are they an adequate substitute for in-person ones?

These are the types of questions that researchers at Dell Medical School’s Health Transformation Research Institute are seeking to answer. The institute, a critical part of Dell Med’s expanding research enterprise, focuses on advancing late-stage translational research — investigations that improve the health of individuals and communities.

Led by director Alison Cahill, M.D., and associate director Elizabeth Matsui, M.D., the institute is prioritizing training, particularly for early career translational researchers. That’s where its new course — “Data, Epidemiology and Statistics for Clinical and Population Health Investigation,” nicknamed “From Great Ideas to Clear Results” — comes in.

Dell Med is a relatively new institution, and while we have an incredibly enthusiastic and vibrant research community, we are still working to build a deep and wide bench of research expertise,” Matsui says. “The purpose of this course is to develop all of that untapped potential, the great ideas people have for how to do the high-impact work that improves the health of the people we serve — in our case, the people of Central Texas.”

The course is a collaborative effort with Dell Med’s Biomedical Data Science Hub and its director, Paul Rathouz, Ph.D. In it, a range of learners — medical students, early career faculty, fellows and residents — are taught the fundamentals of translational research, such as identifying an impactful research question, designing a study to answer it and avoiding pitfalls like bias in participant selection.

By the end of the course, students are putting their new knowledge and skills to work by designing a research study.

“We are bringing in experienced researchers — many who are also physicians — to help learners develop and workshop their ideas,” Matsui says. “Ultimately, the hope is that the course will result in every student embarking on a research study.”

Alexandra Abbate, M.D., a second-year OB-GYN resident, took the course during her intern year — the hectic first year of a physician’s residency. Abbate says the class helped her develop the idea for the research project she is now working on: examining how breastfeeding education delivered to new mothers in the hospital affects their feeding choices once they’re home.

“Residency is such a busy time, and it was really helpful to not only learn the basics of research, but also to have deadlines for the development of our research aims,” Abbate says. “The class gave me the tools I needed to be set up for success.”