'There are No Borders for Science'

‘There are No Borders for Science’

By Adam Klinker

Students bring global perspective to research aimed at combating disease

As in most places of employment, the break room in the School of Medicine’s Department of Clinical and Translational Science (CTS) is a haven from workaday stresses, a place to unwind, have a snack or a meal, and socialize with colleagues.

In the CTS break room at Creighton, you can do all that in about a dozen languages or cuisines.

“Lunch in our break room is a little like a mini U.N.,” said Sannette Hall, a doctoral student in CTS from Jamaica studying asthma and allergy. She is one of nearly 30 students or postdoctoral researchers in the department from 15 different countries.

“We take a little time to not talk science. With the kind of diversity we have, it’s a great way to interact in this global village and to realize that even though we might not be talking about science in that moment, we are getting great ideas about our scientific thinking from all around the world.”

As a scientific program, CTS relies on a global approach to research and pathology in the interest of searching out the best ideas that can then be applied to clinical settings.

Devendra “DK” Agrawal, PhD, chair of the department, said the key goal in CTS is in training and preparing the next generation of researchers for the betterment of the disease management process. To do that, he said, the program necessarily draws on the expertise of faculty and students from around the world.

“That global exposure has given us an enriched environment, not only in learning about and appreciating one another’s cultures and backgrounds, but to exchange ideas,” said Agrawal, a native of India who has also worked in Canada. He represents a diverse faculty in the program, with members hailing from seven different nations.

“The most important function of this department is finding new approaches that aid in a clinical setting to combat disease,” he said. “I’ve found that more exposure to the health challenges in other countries has been integral to our students’ thinking about disease and approaches to disease. They are thinking about health problems globally, in every sense of the word.”

The scope of the department’s projects, its publications, its network and its diversity are all part and parcel of that thinking.

In 2016 alone, CTS students and faculty published work in 59 publications on subjects including cardiovascular science, oncology, orthopedics, neurology, vitamin D, pulmonary diseases, diabetes, and asthma and allergy. Research in each of those fields, and several others, gets into some of the most cutting-edge science Creighton is doing.

And in the multifarious CTS lab, in its break room and in its hallways, the worldwide conversation rarely stops and there are always open ears and minds to ponder new ideas and answer questions.

“There are no borders for science,” said Sami Almalki, a CTS doctoral student from Saudi Arabia, working on clinical uses for stem cells. “To have that diversity in both nationality and experience, you feel more comfortable. You see it in our lab. We are a team that comes from all around the world, working on a common goal in better disease management. You feel confident that you can approach people with questions and get answers.”

Students credited Agrawal with that wide-open flow of ideas and perspectives and said it was a motivating factor in their choice of Creighton’s program, which continues to be perhaps the only clinical and translational science program of its kind in the United States.

“I don’t know many doctors who want to do research, especially of this kind,” said Mohamed Fouda, MD, a CTS doctoral student from Egypt. “Dr. Agrawal has made it very attractive to people like me who do want to find ways to not only serve as a physician, but find new ways to address health problems through research that can eventually be taken into the clinic.”

Vikrant Rai, MD, of India, is another CTS PhD student and physician, studying cardiovascular disease. He said the program was attractive to him because of its diversity and its focus on a wide array of medical and scientific approaches.

“The collaborative nature of the program is very important, and here, we are sharing ideas from all over the world,” Rai said. “Dr. Agrawal’s approach is to make this a diverse atmosphere, to see students from many walks of life working on diverse projects.”

College of Arts and Sciences alumnus and CTS doctoral student Joe Abdo, BA’04, who is working on cancer research, said having contact with physicians in the faculty and among his fellow students, many of whom have arrived at Creighton from around the world, presents a singular opportunity in the department and in the growth of each CTS student.

“I’m not an MD,” Abdo said. “But I’m surrounded by MDs in the lab, on the faculty, so if I have a medical question I can go to them and feel confident in asking. And many of them have that international perspective that will get you to look at a problem in a different way. But we talk about other things, too. The break room gets a lot of conversation going on American football and soccer, too. I work with some awesome people here.”

In the nerve center of the department is the senior program coordinator, Dane Marvin, BA’16, who said from where he stands, the diversity of the CTS faculty, students and staff is providing an additional layer of Creighton education.

“No two days are the same in this job,” he said. “And I love it. It’s especially true in that I get to meet and interact with all kinds of people from all around the world, with all different perspectives. Togo, India, South Sudan, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. In an atmosphere like that, you can’t help but get new outlooks, different approaches. That’s where your world grows and your education grows, when you look outside your own daily experience and find another perspective.”

Off the laboratory bench and out of the classroom, the students agreed, the Department of Clinical and Translational Science resembles a worldwide family. There are the break room conversations, but there have also been celebrations of the Hindu festival of Diwali, sporting events and concerts.

“We’re all busy and we know that this research is why we are here,” Hall said. “We spend several hours per week in the lab focused on our projects and trying to find solutions that can translate from the bench to the bedside. However, when we do get some free time, we make an effort to celebrate and share in each other’s lives and interests. The dynamic nature of the research in CTS and the cultural diversity help to make this place a well-functioning department.”