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Collaboration is easy at Iowa

Collaboration is easy at Iowa


The northeast corner of neighboring Coralville is home to the UI’s Oakdale campus and now our Health Care Services Support Building. But it was also once the site of our tuberculosis wards, among some other, less publicized but critical functions of the Carver College of Medicine and UI Health Care, particularly of its research arm. In that same area, a series of low-slung office buildings now stretches north along a frontage road. More recently one of those buildings was the home of the Iowa Inflammation Program for many years. Founded in 1998 by Infectious Diseases’ Dr. Bill Nauseef, the multidisciplinary research collaborative is composed of members from across the college, including the Departments of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Pediatrics, and Microbiology and Immunology. All of them came willing to trade ideas and support in pursuit of a greater understanding of how inflammatory responses are triggered and how they could be prevented, stopped, or re-directed to better health. Dr. Nauseef and his colleagues were happy to conduct their work at their satellite location in relative independence, finding practical solutions that solved immediate needs. They built an environment where everyone felt comfortable asking each other for help—whether it was sharing equipment, time, or sometimes even a sample of blood—and everyone offered what they could, knowing that they might be the next to ask.

Though the Inflammation Program’s work is now back on our main campus, that well-established spirit of collaboration continues today, now under the direction of Pulmonary’s Dr. Josalyn Cho. This group has not only been well-funded and well-published in high-impact journals over the years, but their work reveals a consistent spirit of generosity and willingness to partner across disciplines to solve important questions. This recent interview with Dr. Cho reveals some of what she thinks has made the group so successful and persistent, even when they hit the inevitable dead-ends. It starts, as she says in the interview, with a clear communication strategy “to exchange ideas, provide feedback, raise concerns.” This happens in a few different settings for the group. One, she says, is in a weekly meeting where members give updates on their assigned responsibility, a variety of tasks equally divided up among the faculty for the program’s benefit. Another is a bi-weekly meeting for presentations just on ongoing research ideas, grant proposals, and the like. This gives everyone a chance to weigh in and provide constructive feedback, refining the work and increasing its chance for success. There are also mentoring committees, taking junior faculty under the group’s wing to ensure promotion goals are achieved. A supportive group!

Dr. Cho offers some additional lessons to other groups, but another that seemed too important not to repeat here is the benefit of simply spending time together. Those years the group spent in relative isolation out at Crosspark not only helped them form an identity but also kept them near one another. A shared kitchen, potlucks, a whiteboard with a call for supplies in plain view of all. These constant, daily touches added up and created community. In fact, we can see the same principle at work in the design of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute, where each floor of their building is dedicated to one disease, bringing researchers from different disciplines into regular contact. The pandemic may have slowed that kind of interaction and it may have diminished our ease in connection, but I believe that as we rediscover the pleasures of company with our colleagues, we may find our collaborative research accelerating as well.

We can see the joy of those connections and how that helps them persist over time, whether it is colleagues who once worked on a shared grant or mentors who guided trainees through their first oral presentations at a scientific session. What we build at Iowa are roots that run deeply. This recent story of a reunion of Iowa medical school, residency, and fellowship graduates and former faculty at a career development retreat in California captures this fact well. Clearly the experience, sometimes years ago, that each of these physician-scientists had while in Iowa City was positive enough that they sought each other out to catch up, to reminisce, and to talk about the future. Iowa has good soil for growing and plenty of dedicated gardeners who know how to maximize that growth. Anyone who spends any time elsewhere quickly sees that what we have here is not so easily found again.

It should go without saying that it is more than just a personally fulfilling experience that a trainee receives here, but a professionally fulfilling one as well. We also offer exposure to cutting-edge ideas and skills and the freedom and support to develop your own. The new T32 training grant examining the intersection of climate change and lung health is an unfortunately vital one at this moment and a relatively unique one in academic medicine. Beyond its novelty, what really separates it from other opportunities for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows is the collaboration at its heart. Trainees will have exposure to faculty mentors in both the Carver College of Medicine and in the UI’s College of Public Health. These collaborations across disciplines are also not so easily found at other institutions. Just because it happens often at Iowa does not make it common, and we should continue to celebrate them and foster even more.

Friday, February 24, 2023