Four physician scientists awarded Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grants to further research impacted by COVID-19

Doris Duke Charitable Foundation awardeesEven pre-pandemic, keeping research on track in the midst of clinical responsibilities was a constant juggling act for physician scientists. The pandemic only increased the pressure. At work, labs closed and the hiring of support staff was put on hold. At home, childcare, household and homeschooling responsibilities increased. 

The Ohio State University College of Medicine is an important leader in the broader effort to retain and support early-career physician scientists, support women and underrepresented faculty and address racism in the academic environment.  The institution recently received funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation — in concert with the American Heart Association, the Burroughs Welcome Fund, the John Templeton Foundation, the Rita Allen Foundation, and the Walder Foundation — to specifically support physician scientists whose research and careers have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ginny L. Bumgardner, MD, PhD, professor of Surgery and associate dean for Physician Scientist Education and Training at The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Rebecca Jackson MD, professor of Medicine, and director of the OSU Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences are the Principal Investigators of this $550,000 grant.  

Dr. Bumgardner and Dr. Jackson shared that four early career faculty members at the college were recently awarded this unique funding support aimed at preventing derailment of physician scientist careers impacted by COVID-19 and other such stressors. 

“This grant acknowledges a cultural shift. In order to do your best at an institution, you need to have support when ‘life’ happens, and a recognition that life now not only includes family caregiving responsibilities, but also other unexpected pressures like those associated with COVID-19,” Dr. Bumgardner says. “There are times when a safety net is needed—institutional support— so that early career clinician scientists don’t get derailed.”  

Beatriz Hanaoka, MD, MSPH, is an assistant professor in the Division of Rheumatology within the Department of Internal Medicine and grant awardee. Before the pandemic, she transferred to Ohio State with her NIH K23 supported patient-oriented research which focuses on the impact of diet, insulin resistance and obesity on physical function and disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. It took a few months to set up her research lab, rebuild her research support system and then, right when she was ready to roll out the study and recruit study participants, COVID-19 hit. She juggled grant duties with supporting her triplets through remote learning with work and household duties.  

“This grant will also allow me to obtain additional biostatistics, science writing and editing support that will help accelerate my progress,” Hanaoka says. “And allow me to compete for extramural funding support.” 

Kerry-Ann Mitchell, MD, PhD, is a surgeon scientist and an assistant professor in the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. She joined Ohio State in the middle of COVID-19 and was tasked with building a Neuroplastic Surgery program and getting a new lab up and running. Her research focuses on evaluating methods to improve outcomes in neurosurgery patients undergoing cranial procedures of the head and face.  

“These patients need multi-disciplinary care right off the bat which currently doesn’t exist,” Dr. Mitchell says. “This grant demonstrates my ability to compete for research funding and it shows institutional commitment to protecting my time for research and advancing discovery.” 

Yin Ren, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery, is a surgeon-scientist, whose clinical practice is focused on patients with hearing loss, diseases of the ear and tumors of the skull base. He finished his fellowship training in Otology/Neurotology during the Covid-19 pandemic and was fortunate to join the otolaryngology faculty at Ohio State in August 2021. His lab investigates new biomarkers and therapies for skull base tumors and develops gene therapy approaches for the treatment of sensorineural hearing loss.  

“The pandemic has led to significant interruptions in research supply chain and available personnel,” Dr. Ren says. “This grant will provide much-needed resources to help my research and achieve my professional and research goals as a surgeon-scientist.” 

MuChun (Joanna) Tsai, MD, assistant professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine within the Department of Internal Medicine, conducts research that is informed by her clinical experience seeing patients with various pulmonary diseases in the outpatient setting and managing critically ill patients in the medical intensive care unit. The pandemic increased pulmonary medicine staffing needs including her clinical duties, call duties and overnight coverage, that reduced time for research. Her research evaluates the role that an enzyme plays during influenza infection in lung epithelial cells and how that impacts host innate immune responses. Dr. Tsai says this grant support will help increase her protected time for research.  

“Having more flexibility in my academic schedule in general would greatly help my research productivity and overall career progression as a female physician-scientist,” Dr. Tsai says. 

The global pandemic required flexibility for scientists, physicians, faculty and learners alike, but it also brought to light opportunities to strengthen and support critical work taking place. Through these and other initiatives, the Ohio State College of Medicine will continue its efforts to retain and increase the number of physician scientists working in the U.S.