Recombinant Innovation and Translational Science Trainees

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Science Translational Medicine  07 Jul 2010:
Vol. 2, Issue 39, pp. 39ed5
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3001182

In this issue, Science Translational Medicine begins a new series of articleson successes in translational medicine written by a select group of scientists who can pre‐sent the essence of a topic, highlight landmark achievements, and synthesize a perspective that will guide future investigations. Why does this series deserve the attention of our newest generation of scientists—predoctoral and postdoctoral scholars from all health and scientific professions?

The trajectory of a junior scholar can parallel the trajectory of discovery. However, if these trajectories can combine and intersect through innovation networks, they can advance bold new ideas. The trajectory of discovery is built on strong discipline-specific expertise. An accelerated change in the trajectory often is produced by innovation that is characterized by a willingness to engage with investigators of diverse backgrounds and to master multilingual, multicultural scientific competencies.

Recombinant innovation is defined as an insightful reordering of elements of previous discoveries and innovations (1). Dyadic examples that span the spectrum of translational research include medical imaging (biology and engineering), hospital infection patterns (molecular biology and epidemiology), and adherence to medication regimens (behavioral sciences and community health). These interfaces are often complicated because they combine several scientific fields that use a variety of technologies and methods, such as clinical trials, information sciences, and molecular medicine, as well as systems of investigation, such as medical centers, informatics, and genome consortia. However, if successful, recombinant innovation can lead to remarkable paradigmatic shifts.

The individual scholar’s trajectory of training is marked by intense focus in a discipline, accompanied by frequent transitions to new positions and types of funding [predoctoral to postdoctoral to junior faculty, and T32 to K30 to K12/K08/K23/K99/R00 to R01, respectively (2)]. Each transition is accompanied by new challenges, and we ask trainees during the earliest stages of their careers to learn new languages (terminology) and new norms of investigation and interaction (culture)—in other words, to begin to transform themselves into multilingual and multicultural translational scientists.

As trainees progress, mentors often encourage the brightest and most curious scholars with strong interpersonal skills and a tolerance for the anxiety that accompanies change to move from a comfortable trajectory that emphasizes expertise in a single discipline to one that is multilingual and multicultural. This forces trainees to move out of their comfort zone, which can produce anxiety and identity challenges. Translational scholars can find themselves trying to learn several languages at once. Often caught between the cultures of clinical medicine and research, translational scholars may be too different from individuals who remain in the single disciplinary culture of either clinical care or basic research to be accepted by any one subculture (3). Strong mentorship and structured training programs can help scholars as they venture into new fields. A creative and prescient mentor will require individuals not only to master a specific discipline but also to formulate answers to important questions and to question current answers, leading to new conceptual models.

Training grants also should provide a structure and perspective that prepare the trainee to be an active participant in team science. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Med into Grad (HHMI-MIG) initiative is a successful example of innovation in training. HHMI-MIG provides immersion in clinical situations, with didactic and small-group opportunities for predoctoral Ph.D. candidates to understand bedside-to-bench research, such as how to use the techniques and concepts from their basic fields of study (for example, bioengineering or imaging) in the development of new solutions to dilemmas in clinical care. Such training produces investigators who are willing to join new teams that leverage the talents of many into a dynamic new effort. The highly effective team becomes a metaphor for inclusivity and diversity.

For the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) Clinical and Translational Science Award consortium and for its Research Education key function committee, team science is a strong theme. In this new series of articles on successes in translational medicine, the value of interdisciplinary teams—engaged in translational medicine from bench science to community engagement—will be demonstrated by the recombination of junior and senior investigators willing and able to bridge gaps in knowledge, language, and culture to formulate new answers to medical challenges.

In translational science, innovation networks provide a point wherein the trajectory of discovery and the trajectory of a successful junior scholar can intersect, forming exciting new models of scientific discovery. These models require that investigators have the ability to communicate with new and widespread scientific audiences, crossing knowledge boundaries previously thought to be impenetrable. Because of their translational scientific training and preparation in the practice of team science, multilingual/multicultural junior scientists will have the tools to effectively translate their science into improved health care.

These new investigators become the center of an innovation network. The young scholar is a most enduring form of technology and information transfer.


  • Citation: F. J. Meyers, Recombinant innovation and translational science trainees. Sci. Transl. Med. 2, 39ed5 (2010).

References and Notes

  1. F.J.M. is supported by HHMI grant 56005706 (F. Meyers, principal investigator) and NIH/National Center for Research Resources, Institutional Clinical and Translational Science Center grant 5UL1 RR024146 (Lars Berglund, University of California, Davis, principal investigator).

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