May 31, 2021

Why we teach to unlearn: the non-traditional path of translational research

Programs: Graduate, Programs: TRP
A group of people discussing in a classroom

“We’re not teaching knowledge, we facilitate the learning of a new mindset”, explains Dr. Joseph Ferenbok, Director of the Translational Research Program (TRP) and Assistant Professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology.

Now in its sixth year, the TRP is a Master’s program that follows an unconventional path.

Why we need to teach translational research

“Our body of knowledge grows exponentially. We’re now able to sequence genes and genomes in hours and days instead of years, but channeling knowledge into actual diagnostics and treatments that help patients can be slowed by a number of factors,” explains Dr. Ferenbok, “There exists deep expertise, but it can be siloed, and we cannot expect every researcher to launch a start-up or be able to translate that knowledge into day-to-day life”.

Progress has been made over the last 10-20 years, but Ferenbok believes we need more communication and flow of knowledge between clinical and scientific researchers to apply discoveries to patients.

“How do we mobilize knowledge towards impact and make bridges between different disciplines so that we have a pathway that is more systematic and effective in terms of applying it towards patient health? Continues Ferenbok, “At the end of the day, in health science research we’re all trying to help people improve their health and quality of life”.

The importance of translational research was well recognized in research and clinical care, but the challenge was in how you train someone to do it. This challenge was taken up by the TRP, originally started by Drs Avrum Gotlieb, Alan Kaplan, and Howard Mount, and then developed by Ferenbok. The need for such a program was reflected in the speed of its Governmental approval – a process typically taking up to 24 months at the time, took only four months for the TRP.

A non-traditional approach to learning

The TRP combines course work and project-based research which can range from laboratory-based to business and social science, and culminates in a capstone project.

A cohort of about 30 trainees works together in the program to develop skills in creative problem solving with purpose. Deliberately chosen to build a community with a varied group of backgrounds, skills, and experience, the students can come from areas such as science, the arts, engineering, medicine, and business. Some are recent graduates just starting out, some have professional healthcare experience or are scientists, and some are late in their careers looking to reskill.

Ferenbok explains how the program starts with student selection; “If you have people from the same walk of life, the same discipline, the same perspectives, they're more likely going to come up with similar ideas. If you can get people from different places, from medicine, public health, business, law, and music, and present them with a problem, the chances of them coming up with really novel ideas is higher”.

All health problems are unique. There are no “10 steps” to translating research and so the program is not based on a textbook but on developing skills and competencies in a highly interdisciplinary environment. The first, and most important lessons are to identify and ‘unlearn’ our biases and assumptions, and to focus on the person at the center of the work - the beneficiary (not always the patient). 

Students are encouraged to always test their ideas and hypothesis, not by relying on what they think they know, but to go out and talk to people: to patients and caregivers - people. This approach presents challenges in terms of getting students out of their comfort zones and ethics, but reaps valuable rewards in understanding, learning, and networking.

For some, being encouraged to unlearn their way of thinking can be a real challenge says TRP faculty member, Dr. Richard Foty, an Assistant Professor in LMP, “We don’t want to change everyone’s scientific approach. Our goal is to find a very specialized group of individuals who have the skills required to become translational researchers.”

Ferenbok remembers one student in the program, “He came with a fixed idea of solving the problem of waiting times in the emergency room for patients undergoing chemotherapy who needed out-of-office support. He believed this was a real issue. After some encouragement, he reluctantly spoke to several cancer patients and discovered this was not an issue for them at all. They listed other things they found were wrong with the quality of service or their experiences, but it had nothing to do with what, as a physician, he perceived the problem to be. So as a result, he ended up working on how to provide tools to physicians to educate patients on the services available to them which was an identified problem for patients.”

Adapting a community-led course in the pandemic

The TRP facilitates the learning of essential skills like networking, collaboration, and interpersonal skills. There is formal teaching, but the TRP team encourages students to “get out what they put in”, and learn from the work they do together in groups, and from their own personal experiences in the program.

“We're trying to create a really tight-knit and efficient team in an environment where it’s safe to experiment and fail because that's a key part of learning,” explains Dr. Foty.

Being forced into 100% virtual classes meant building and maintaining that community suddenly became more important than ever.

They encouraged a ‘camera on at all times’ policy (unless there was a very good reason) and used it as a positive way to get to know each other well.

“We are always very open and transparent with our students,” says Foty, “the TRP is about finding new ways of approaching problem-solving. So we instill in our students to not complain if there's something wrong, but to help us figure out a better way to do it.”

The students rose to the challenge by finding initiatives to build community such as height charts so they all knew how tall each other were. An interest in beating Zoom fatigue by doing some exercise evolved into students creating a fitness class which has now evolved into a certified program about to be available to all of LMP. 

With the TRP, it is all about mindset and they are taking that approach with the pandemic. “The pandemic has gifted us with an opportunity to experiment more with online learning, to building community, and looking at what we’re doing in a different way, that is after all, what we love to do in teaching translational research.” says Ferenbok.

Find out more

The Translational Research Program (TRP) website

Putting theory to the test: real world experience teaches students to mind the gap

Students on the TRP program lead the way in their own learning about health equity

The TRP fitness club launches new online program

A 20 year path to translation: repairing broken hearts