Making an IMPACT

Advancements in the field of medical research do not always follow a straight line. There are obstacles, challenges and questions that are seemingly unsolvable. When researchers reach an impasse, what can they do?

They can start with a new question. If everyone in the room is saying, “Yes, but ...,” then it may be time to find someone who is asking, “Why not?”

That’s the genesis behind Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies, known as IMPACT. The program brings together undergraduates from all fields of study and from colleges and universities around the Midwest. The students form teams, each with a faculty mentor, to form hypotheses for a single, shared research question.

The question differs each year, but it is always a real issue facing researchers. The students’ answers potentially have real results.

Timothy J. Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., and Katherine Campbell, Ph.D., a former graduate student and research fellow in Dr. Nelson’s lab, formed the IMPACT Program to infuse research labs with fresh, creative ideas.

“Sometimes [the students] commit to an interpretation of data that is 180 degrees from the way we interpret that data,” says Dr. Nelson, the director of the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome at Mayo Clinic. “When that happens — and that happens every year — as researchers, we get to sit back and say, ‘Why did we think that was wrong, and why did we think we were right?’

“It creates a wonderful dialog that allows us experts to fundamentally challenge the dogma we live by every day.”

Since the program’s inception, the research questions have been in the field of hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Funding has come, in part, from the philanthropy of the Todd and Karen Wanek Family Program for Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome.

Big Benefits

Students’ research takes place at their home campuses, and at the end of the program, they gather for a symposium to share their hypotheses. This year, the IMPACT symposium is being hosted in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where Mayo Clinic Health System and the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire recently established a collaborative research agreement.

“This is a chance for students to get involved with a project that definitely has a direct application, in this case to quality of life and improved patient outcomes,” says Michael Carney, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. “I think that’s a real big benefit to this collaboration.”

“What we’ve seen year after year is that the students are becoming confident experts in the field and asking questions that are extremely well-informed,” Dr. Campbell says.

Dr. Campbell, the original director of the IMPACT Program who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Interprofessional Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, is mentoring a team for the first time in 2019.

“I think what’s exciting from an educator’s standpoint is that this really allows students an opportunity they don’t often get to tackle, the first part of the scientific method, and that is that idea-generation phase,” Dr. Campbell says.

In addition to presenting their hypotheses to their peers and faculty mentors, a few select student groups from the IMPACT Program have been afforded the opportunity to conduct their research in a Mayo Clinic laboratory.

“We’ve actually tested some ideas that we never would have tested before because we brought those students into our lab,” Dr. Nelson says.

The IMPACT Program isn’t just about idea generation and research creativity. It also serves as a talent development program that includes hundreds of students who get a chance to experience Mayo Clinic as a potential place to continue their studies or start their careers.

“It gives them a meaningful exposure to who we are as an organization,” Dr. Nelson says. “We’ve had students who have done this program and are graduate students today and stay connected with us. They’re so grateful for this program because it sparked in them something new.”■

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