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Driving Innovation Through Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

Published February 28, 2019


A radiation oncologist, an immunologist, and a mechanical engineer walk into a room to consult with a brain tumor specialist. This may sound like the inauspicious start to a bad joke, but at the Interstellar Initiative — a mentoring workshop series presented by the Academy and The Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development — the payoff is a potential treatment for pancreatic cancer.

We recently sat down with a team of Interstellar participants to discuss how the Initiative's emphasis on international collaboration and mentorship is helping to pave the way for innovative research. We caught up with them just as they were finalizing a grant proposal, developed over the course of two workshops with the guidance of their team mentor Noriyuki Kasahara, PhD.

From left to right: Edmond Young, Taisuke Kondo, Michael Pacold work on their grant presentation.

From left to right: Edmond Young, Taisuke Kondo, Michael Pacold work on their grant presentation.

What is your grant proposal’s focus?

Michael Pacold, MD, PhD, New York University: We’re studying pancreatic cancer — a nasty cancer with a five year survival rate less than five percent. We’re interested in defining metabolic features of the pancreatic cancer environment that render these tumors insensitive to multiple therapies, including immune therapy. During preliminary experiments, we found that our initial proposal wouldn’t have worked.

Taisuke Kondo, PhD, Keio University: The therapy we were proposing was potentially very dangerous because of adverse effects for normal lung tissues.

MP: With this knowledge, we’re now focused on what metabolites are in the microenvironment of pancreatic cancer.

Edmond Young, PhD, University of Toronto: This new approach makes for a more focused grant. We’re answering a basic question that could have major impact across the board in basic science. This Initiative has been very helpful. The first workshop was a meet and greet, shaking hands and getting to know one another. Six months later we have met again to parse out further details and receive mentored feedback.

Why should senior scientists mentor their younger colleagues?

Noriyuki Kasahara, MD, PhD, University of California, San Francisco: There’s an earnest desire to ensure young, promising junior faculty do not make the same mistakes that we made, and that they benefit from our experiences. Also an experienced scientist can explain how to think about grant proposals in the way that critical reviewers think about them.

Noriyuki Kasahara consults with the team on their proposal.

Noriyuki Kasahara consults with the team on their proposal.

Why is mentorship for early career investigators important?

EY: Because it's easy to make mistakes (as an early career investigator). Mistakes happen often, and sometimes they take a long time to fix. Having a mentor helps to avoid traps. PhD students have been trained to do good bench science, and they know how to design an experiment, but writing a grant is a new game.

MP: In science and medicine, the successful generally function at a level above where they actually are. Good graduate students act like postdocs, good postdocs act like primary investigators. Good junior faculty act like senior faculty and so forth. Mentors help you get there, if only by imitation.

Why is international collaboration in the sciences important?

EY: When you're doing science at a university surrounded by familiar people, you get siloed. Scientists need to step outside of their local environment once in a while. Hearing other people's thoughts, getting their input, and having a global eye towards problems is extremely helpful.

MP: The beauty of science is that it should be true and reproducible. You should be able to do the same experiment in New York as you can in Tokyo, as you can in Toronto.

NK: I think that's one of the wonderful aspects of science. Also, it's a universal kind of language. Physical laws are universal and it doesn't matter what your nation of origin is, your ethnicity. They apply equally to everybody.

TK: This program is a great opportunity for young investigators to participate in international collaborations.

What advice do you have for young researchers?

MP: In science you have to be comfortable with the realization that you will be wrong. Often. Don’t be afraid of being wrong, look at what the data is telling you and adjust accordingly.

EY: Question everything, because a skeptical scientist is always a good scientist.

TK: Enjoy both success and failure. Positive and negative data are both useful.

NY: Being in science can be very immersive, very consuming. You think about your hypotheses and your experiments all the time. But don't always let it consume you. Live your life and see your family.

Applications for the next round of the Interstellar Initiative will open later in 2019.

Role models and mentors play a crucial role throughout a scientist’s career. Learn how you can mentor others through our Member-to-Member Mentoring program.