The University of Arizona

Training the Next Generation of Heart Researchers

By Shelley Littin, University Communications | December 7, 2012

A new $2.6 million grant is fueling a longstanding UA program that trains the next generation of scientists studying the cardiovascular system. The NIH has renewed its funding to the UA for interdisciplinary training in cardiovascular research every five years consistently since 1969, making it one of the longest-held grants at the UA.

Janis Burt has been the principal investigator on the NIH grant for interdisciplinary training in cardiovascular research since 1992. (Photo by Stephen Wright)
Janis Burt has been the principal investigator on the NIH grant for interdisciplinary training in cardiovascular research since 1992. (Photo by Stephen Wright)
Human umbilical vein cells covering a stent, a metallic implant inserted into the blood vessel of the heart to treat many cardiovascular problems, are shown in an image made by former cardiovascular trainee Phat L. Tran in Jeong-Yeol Yoon's lab, under the supervision of Marvin Slepian and Jeong-Yeol Yoon. Blue spots are cell nuclei. (Image courtesy of Jeong-Yeol Yoon)
Human umbilical vein cells covering a stent, a metallic implant inserted into the blood vessel of the heart to treat many cardiovascular problems, are shown in an image made by former cardiovascular trainee Phat L. Tran in Jeong-Yeol Yoon's lab, under the supervision of Marvin Slepian and Jeong-Yeol Yoon. Blue spots are cell nuclei. (Image courtesy of Jeong-Yeol Yoon)

For more than four decades, the University of Arizona has played a pivotal role backed by the National Institutes of Health in training scientists to study what still is the leading cause of death in western countries – cardiovascular malfunctions and diseases.

“The goal of the grant is to train the next generation of scientists to have a broad view of cardiovascular research, to recognize the benefits of a multidisciplinary approach, and to project where cardiovascular research needs to be in 10, 15 or 20 years,” said Janis Burt, who is heading up the $2.6 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

A professor of physiology at the UA College of Medicine, Burt became the principal investigator in 1992. The award is one of several training grants awarded to the UA for its ability to successfully train graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to be competitive in future research-oriented careers.

The UA has applied for, and received, the award for training scientists in cardiovascular research every five years since 1969, making it one of the longest-running grants the UA has held.

Burt said the training program has evolved since the UA first received the grant. “It has morphed every time the grant was submitted, with changes in training faculty as well as becoming increasingly focused on cardiovascular research. The cardiovascular area has a much larger number of faculty now, so the training program can be more focused and still be interdisciplinary, spanning multiple departments and colleges.”

“It’s interdisciplinary in the sense that we’re bringing the expertise of many different disciplines – biologists, engineers, biochemists, cell biologists, physiologists, surgeons and other clinicians – all under one umbrella that includes researchers doing work that contributes to understanding the normal and pathological functions of the cardiovascular system.”

The students and postdocs who participate in the training program, Burt said, “benefit from the shared resources of this diverse group of faculty.”

“Faculty who participate in the training program have several qualities that make them eligible,” Burt said. “Their research focus is cardiovascular, and they have independent funding to run their labs and provide an environment that is conducive for graduate students’ or postdocs’ success.”

Burt said the training program is designed to ensure the trainees develop a diverse knowledge base and a sense of breadth in their outlook on scientific research.

“I think it’s very easy to come out of a doctoral program very focused on your own research, with little sense of the breadth of science,” Burt said. “One of the challenges for the faculty is to create an environment where the value of breadth is emphasized and reinforced to the trainees.”

Although the training program does not deviate especially from the graduate program’s degree path, the training program provides students with additional resources and experiences made possible by the diversity of training faculty; trainees also have more opportunities to present their studies at national meetings and to gain experience in teaching and writing grants.

“Some would argue that physiology is the basis of medicine,” Burt said. “They’re tightly interwoven. We’ve structured the program based on the Physiological Sciences Graduate Interdisciplinary Program.”

The grant supports seven graduate students and four postdoctoral researchers every year, for two to three years. To be eligible for support by training grant in cardiovascular research, graduate students and postdocs must have a project that is central to cardiovascular physiology, and also must be working under a mentor who is training faculty on the grant.

Trainees are overseen by a group of faculty members whose purpose is to facilitate the success of the trainee. In addition, the trainees have multiple opportunities to present their work and to participate in training sessions that deal with the ethics of science and any regulated aspect of safety for both humans and animals.

“We also require them to prepare grants, because the more you write, the better you get at it, and given the competitiveness of the world with regard to funding and publishing, you need all the practice you can get,” Burt said.

The training environment here at the UA is the perfect place to practice, Burt added. “We push our trainees to develop the skills to be successful, while in a safe environment.”

Especially, Burt said, “We hope to give our trainees the perspective that really diverse subjects for research can give you insights on very important processes in the cardiovascular system. For example, research on C. elegans, a worm, can provide insight on how the cardiovascular system works in human beings. Similarly, we know more about cell cycle control and cell differentiation from studies done on yeast than we know from research on many other organisms that we might work on.”

“Keeping the perspective of breadth and the value of research at all different levels is a major challenge especially when you’re thinking about where we need to be 20 years from now,” Burt said. “I think that the training grant gives us as scientists the ability to step back and try to gain that perspective. That’s one of the challenges as well as one of the benefits of participating in a training program.”