American Society for Investigative Pathology, June 2011, Vol 3, No. 2

San Diego Save the Date!
ASIP 2012 Annual Meeting at
Experimental Biology 2012
April 21-25, 2012, San Diego, CA (USA)
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Edward Medina: From Trainee to Investigator

Edward MedinaEdward Medina MD, PhD
Hematopathology Fellow
Department of Pathology
UTHSC, San Antonio

I am at a special milestone in my career.  After a very long period of training I’ll be joining the faculty at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA). Herein, I’ll attempt to relay some of the excitement, anticipation, and anxiety as I transition from trainee to independent investigator as well as provide a few pointers that I’ve picked up along the way.

Educational background
I have earned both the MD and PhD degrees; I thoroughly enjoy both practicing medicine and being a scientist. I did my undergraduate at UC Berkeley majoring in Molecular and Cell Biology and then went to UC Davis for graduate and medical school. I went on to the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio for pathology (anatomic and clinical) residency and I have just finished a fellowship in hematopathology. I became an ASIP trainee member 3-4 years ago and I am currently a member of the ASIP Committee for Career Development, Women & Minorities (CCDWM). As a member of that committee, I was given the opportunity to chair the Highlights: Graduate Student Research in Pathology session at EB2011 along with Kari Nejak-Bowen.  

Starting mid-July I will be an Assistant Professor (tenure track) in the department of pathology at UTHSCSA. My time will be divided between clinical responsibilities in hematopathology and starting up a research laboratory that will focus on elucidating mechanisms of lymphomagenesis

My work as a hematopathologist
As an attending hematopathologist I will now be ultimately responsible for “signing out” hematopathology cases (i.e., bone marrows, lymph nodes, flow cytometry). It will be my neck on the line now. More importantly though, my diagnoses will direct patient care.  I’m expecting some anxious times ahead as I adjust to this new level of responsibility.  Fortunately, I won’t be alone as my new colleagues will be around to help me out. In this respect, there are some advantages to starting one’s medical career in an academic medical center (as opposed to private practice).  Over time, my diagnostic skills will improve, and my confidence and level of comfort should increase with experience.

The importance of good mentoring in achieving independence
Trying to succeed, as an independent investigator is a far different and perhaps even more challenging endeavor, especially during this period of extreme competition for research funding. As a graduate student and during my time in the lab during residency, my efforts in the lab were entirely scientific; I didn’t have to worry about hiring personnel, keeping track of lab expenditures or maintaining a budget, and keeping graduate students, technicians, and various compliance officers happy.  I’ve heard from various sources that running a lab is in many respects similar to running a small business—I don’t know anything about running a business.  Frankly, I feel like a deer caught in the headlights as I am made aware of all of the complexities that come with becoming an independent investigator.  Nothing in graduate school or during post-doc prepared me for this aspect of research.  Fortunately, I have a fantastic mentor who is helping me navigate those waters. Dr. Linda McManus, a former president of the ASIP who has many years of experience running a laboratory, has helped other young faculty start up their labs and regularly counsels young investigators on obtaining research funding. She even helped me negotiate key components of my start-up package (including start-up funds and laboratory space), and she is now advising me about issues ranging from tenure to hiring a research technician. I have also found the programs sponsored by CCDWM at the ASIP Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology, such as this year’s Career Development Workshop and Breakfast: Transition to Principal Investigator, to be particularly helpful. Going forward, I believe that it is essential to find a knowledgeable mentor who is willing to show you the ropes…and, of course, it is essential to take advantage of CCDWM’s programs.   

A tip on focusing your research efforts as a trainee
Of course, learning the logistical ropes of running a lab will take the edge off of the difficulties and stresses with starting up a lab, but being well trained to do science is an absolute given for success. One of my mentors during graduate school, Dr. Tzipi Goldkorn, taught me something vital to the success of my project that I will remember throughout my career and teach to those who I train. At the earliest stages of my project, she taught me to develop a concrete vision of the manuscript that would result from the project based on the working hypothesis that I had developed.  She had me draw out all of the manuscript’s anticipated figures (i.e., key experiments).  This helped me focus my research efforts—we all know how easy it is to wander off in different directions as I had done during the first couple of years of my graduate training.  Of course, as the project proceeded, more often than not, the data generated would not quite fit the story as originally outlined and the story and figures would have to be modified—but again this approach helped keep me focused.

My research experience during residency has also prepared me for independence.  At the end of my first year of residency I took a 6 week elective to try to get back into the lab.  It wasn’t until the end of that rotation though that I started to generate some interesting preliminary data.  Because of the promising results I decided to take another 6 weeks of elective. My mentor, Dr. Michael Berton, let me develop the project’s working hypothesis, design the experiments, and write the manuscript, which was recently published in the Journal of Immunology. This was another opportunity that let me develop the confidence to function independently. 

Final words
I hope you’ve been able to glean some tips that you might find useful as you transition to independence. In summary, find good mentors, attempt to function independently as possible as a trainee, and take advantage of the programs that the ASIP’s Committee for Career Development, Women & Minorities sponsors at the ASIP Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology. Finally, there are several other mentors who I have not specifically mentioned in the article but who have helped me tremendously including Dr. Kent Erickson and Dr. Peter Havel.