New Research Academy aims to increase quality and quantity of research from medical school’s faculty in all areas of medicine

W.E. Upjohn M.D. CampusDr. Ramona Wallace has spent her 30-year career advocating for food as medicine as a family physician, taking an unconventional approach to treating her patients through a functional medicine lens and ensuring her patients have the correct macro and micronutrient balance to restore and heal.

Now, Dr. Wallace, an assistant professor in the medical school’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, has the opportunity to turn her passion into a research project documenting the prevalence of communicable diseases related to nutritional deficiencies like scurvy, beriberi and xerophthalmia and develop a first-ever nutritional deficiency database.

Dr. Wallace is one of five faculty members at the medical school selected to begin in the first cohort of the medical school’s Research Academy, a two-year structured training program intended to encourage faculty members to conduct research related to their interests and areas of medicine.

“I’ve been mostly clinical, on the front lines, seeing patients,” Dr. Wallace said. “To be given this opportunity to do research and have protected time and have leaders of the medical school recognize my passion for food and nutrition is important enough to receive focused attention is a real honor.”

The idea for the Research Academy grew from the desire to increase the amount of research and academic activity happening at the medical school, and a way to help faculty members who do not have a significant background in publications and grants, said Dr. Robert Sawyer, chair of the medical school’s Department of Surgery and director of the new Research Academy.

Dr. Sawyer and Dr. Lisa Graves, the medical school’s Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, worked with the medical school’s founding dean, Dr. Hal B. Jenson, to develop the concept. Faculty members who are selected to participate are not full-time researchers, but rather assistant professors or associate professors who have responsibilities to teach and participate in clinical work.

“There’s a really important role for our full-time researchers but there’s also an important role for our faculty members to investigate issues that come up in their daily work,” Dr. Graves said. 

Two goals of the Research Academy are to train current and future faculty to be more productive and efficient in research, and to increase the quality and quantity of research at WMed, Dr. Sawyer said. The Research Academy aims to create researchers that look at all aspects of medicine, from quality improvement to clinical care to biomedical sciences, Dr. Graves said.

“We’re not limiting it to a particular type of research which is one of the things that I think makes the research academy interesting because there’s a real opportunity for researchers to connect across disciplines,” Dr. Graves said.

The structure of the academy’s two-year curriculum is designed to help a faculty member take their idea of a research project and turn it into a paper and then a presentation, Dr. Graves said. Scholars are expected to complete a research project in two years and are supported by educational sessions that include developing a research question, research ethics, successful grant writing, project and time management. Several outcomes will be measured at the end of the academy course and the following three years, including the number of abstracts scholars submitted and presented to regional, national and international meetings, the number of manuscripts submitted to peer-reviewed journals and their number of peer-reviewed publications.

In all, five scholars were selected to participate in the first cohort, which started in February and runs for two years. A second cohort will start in September. So far, four scholars have been selected to be in the second cohort, but Dr. Graves and Dr. Sawyer said they will be accepting more applications for that group.

Scholars in the first cohorts will build the culture of the Research Academy and will be able to guide future scholars with their stories of how they completed the work in the various stages of their careers, Dr. Graves said. The idea of the Research Academy has drawn praise from scholars, along with their colleagues and department chairs, Dr. Graves said.

“This requires a time commitment,” Dr. Graves said. “Behind every scholar there’s a department chair that says ‘I support you,’ and a department that says ‘We’ll shift the load and give you time.’ Of the five scholars that come in this year, there’s a wave behind them that says ‘This is important and we’re doing it.’”

Adil Akkouch, PhD, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, said as a member of the first cohort that he plans to focus on developing novel effective treatments for bone defects using micro RNAs-based gene therapy and electrical stimulation.

“By joining the Academy, it will give me the opportunity to meet with clinicians at WMed and try to move from bench side work to bedside work,” Dr. Akkouch said. “I’d like to have more exposure to senior people like Dr. Graves and Dr. Sawyer to learn from them and their experiences. They can show us the short way of doing things by sharing their experiences and how we can move faster in the right way and be more productive.”

Christine Pink, PhD, a forensic anthropologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology, said being in the Research Academy gives her an opportunity to stay on track with her various research projects, including one that tests for COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory pathogens in decedents in Southwest Michigan who aren’t scheduled for autopsy to see if any cause for respiratory death has been missed. Dr. Pink also has special interest in how long-term drug use changes bone biology, and how to determine whether a person lived in an area where remains were found in cases of advanced decomposition. She is gathering data to establish a reference for the Great Lakes region, especially western Michigan.

Dr. Pink said she hopes her involvement in the Research Academy allows her to mentor other researchers in the future.

“I like teaching so I hope it gets me on my feet as an established researcher and I can teach future cohorts and be a mentor,” Dr. Pink said. “Ultimately I would like to bring it around and participate as a mentor to other junior faculty.”

Dr. Wallace said she sees her participation as a way to engage residents, other faculty members, and medical students in quality research and improving the quality of life in Southwest Michigan.

“It’s not just about turning out research, it’s about teaching and mentoring over the next couple of years so it’s a sustainable program,” Dr. Wallace said. “This is the way to better medicine.”