Grant renewal ensures the best and brightest are at the forefront of cardiovascular research and treatment

When co-directors from The Ohio State University College of Medicine Department of Physiology and Cell Biology designed their T32 training program, they created a unique program to address a pressing issue — the loss of senior women scientists in cardiovascular research.

“We designed our training grant to create a culture of research that promotes the success of all scientists,” says Jill Rafael-Fortney, PhD, professor of Physiology and Cell Biology at the Ohio State College of Medicine. “It includes training for the advancement of women to all trainees in the program.”

The purpose of the National Institutes of Health’s T32 Institutional Training Programs is to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce of scientists and physician-scientists equipped to assume leadership roles in biomedical, behavioral, and clinical research.

T32 programs also require “a well-balanced group of trainees, including men, women and minorities.” Ohio State’s unique offering aims to provide trainees across the board with tools and skillsets to lead and succeed in scientific careers. This will serve to increase overall diversity in the scientific workforce and ensure representation of under-represented minorities.

Dr. Rafael-Fortney works with co-director Brandon Biesiadecki, PhD, professor and vice-chair of the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology, both established scientists in their fields, to administer the $1.8M T32 training program titled, “Training to Provide the Knowledge, Skills, and Culture to the Next Generation of Cardiovascular Scientists” and it has just been renewed for 5 more years through a competitive process.

This training program is laser focused — it works to attract and train pre-doctoral students performing cardiovascular research in the laboratories of 18 faculty who serve as mentors, and five participating faculty located at The Ohio State University main campus and Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which houses the college’s department of Pediatrics.

Although the number of number of women receiving PhDs and MDs has been equal to that of males for decades, only about 25 percent of full professors are women and only 18% of those involved in leadership are women.

“This amounts to a tremendous loss of expertise,” Dr. Biesiadecki says. “That is why our program includes a high number of female mentors and provides key leadership skills at the first stages of commitment to cardiovascular science.”

Cardiovascular medicine is an area of science that requires the best and brightest to develop novel diagnostic and treatment methods. Cardiovascular disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States and across the world, killing close to 18 million people each year. While preventive programs have made a significant impact on cardiovascular health outcomes, the efficient development of novel research, diagnostics and therapies is needed.

A unique component of this program is that in addition to trainees being mentored during their research training, mentorship extends as trainees move into their careers. “Mentors care about their trainees’ career development and not just what they produce in the lab,” Dr. Rafael-Fortney says. “Trainees in the program have in person and virtual interactions with clinical and scientific experts across the enterprise to widen their professional network and help them gain access to leading-edge training and opportunities.”

In addition, trainees collaborate with an established scientific infrastructure consisting of multi-disciplinary teams of the best basic scientists and physicians from the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital, Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute, Ohio State’s Heart and Vascular Center and The Bob and Corrine Frick Center for Heart Failure and Arrhythmia. The Frick Center is a first-of-its kind center in the nation offering the combined expertise of physicians who specialize in heart failure and heart arrhythmia — and understand how to treat these complex, combined diseases.

The training program offers a variety of intentional professional development workshops which are open to trainees at all levels, even those not officially part of the training program.

Workshop topics range from interviewing skills, how to conduct unbiased negotiations, an overview of the journey to become faculty, manuscript review, budget and grant writing and self-assessment skills. Skills, Dr. Rafael-Fortney says she wishes she had known in her twenties.

As she and Dr. Biesiadecki continue to blaze a trail for the next generation of cardiovascular scientists, their program continues to grow and garner additional resources. They take pride in the fact that program participants had already met a separate set of supplemental requirements for the program to qualify for the renewal of the grant.

“Over half of the current trainees have published research on patient samples, clinical data, or direct clinical studies,” Dr. Biesiadecki says. “They are well on their way to being collaborative investigators who have the tools not only to succeed, but to excel.”