Advancing Basic/Translational Science through Collaboration

By Joseph D. Phillips, MD | September 29, 2021

Fall is officially here! With the academic year now in full swing, students, residents and fellows are settling into their new roles and new faculty are taking up their positions. Because this year will be over before we know it, this is a great time to start planning for future research opportunities. For students and residents, research can be a great way to set yourself apart from other applicants searching for residency and fellowship positions. While there are excellent tracks for education, ethics, and outcomes research, I would like to focus on the benefits of basic and translational science (BTS).

Once the mainstay of surgical research, BTS has become less commonly performed by surgery trainees over the last 2 decades. The reasons for this are multifactorial and include the comparative higher cost of performing BTS, the increasing competitiveness of the grant funding environment, and the diversity of research and academic development opportunities that have replaced residents taking 2-3 years out of their clinical training to spend time in “the lab.” Furthermore, BTS projects often require a significantly longer time to complete and can result in a lower number of publications per the amount of time spent performing the work compared to other types of research.

A career in cardiothoracic surgery with a focus in BTS is incredibly rewarding and ripe for success.

Despite these potential drawbacks, a career in cardiothoracic surgery with a focus in BTS is incredibly rewarding and ripe for success. As molecular genetics, personalized medicine, and immunotherapies continue to advance, there are tremendous opportunities for surgeon-scientists to engage in collaborative BTS research. As surgeons we have the clinical expertise to help generate patient-centered, hypothesis-driven protocols. In addition, we have the ability to provide access to human tissues for translational research and the ability to enroll patients in clinical trials that move advances from the bedside to the bench and back. This expertise is invaluable to multidisciplinary research teams and can be an outstanding way to have a major role in collaborative science, which has been a recent major focus of the National Institutes of Health and other extramural funding agencies.

My Experience

While a PhD may be helpful to you, it is not a prerequisite for being a surgeon-scientist. However, experience and training are needed to be a successful BTS researcher. While I do not have a PhD, as a general surgery resident I spent 2 years in the translational laboratory of a surgical oncologist who had research partnerships with a PhD immunologist and an MD oncologist. This foundation in collaborative science provided me with a great understanding of the power of teamwork in advancing research. 

Currently, I have a very rewarding and successful mentoring relationship with a PhD immunologist, and we are working to further understand the immune tumor and lymph node microenvironments of non-small cell lung cancer and melanoma. We bring different expertise to this partnership and both benefit from working with one another. Together we have successful garnered several grants and generated several publications.  

Team Science can be an excellent avenue for cardiothoracic surgeons to have a successful BTS career. I would highly encourage medical students and residents to seek out training opportunities in the research laboratories of surgeon-scientists or work with surgeons (or other physicians) who collaborate with BTS researchers. Having a track record with this type of work will enable you to negotiate research packages when you are searching for your first faculty position. Most faculty are always willing to have conversations about their research, particularly with students or residents who are interested in working with them. These conversations can turn into great mentor-mentee relationships as well, and mentorship is something we all need in order to be successful.

In conclusion, we need CT surgeons to continue performing basic and translational research! The ability to improve the care and health of our patients depends on it.