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CRTI: 20 Years of Milestones, Mentorship, and Memories

December 11, 2023
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In 2003, ASH conducted a survey among directors of hematology/oncology subspecialty training programs in the United States and Canada, bringing to light a serious gap that ultimately left fewer hematologists and oncologists pursuing academic medicine: Research training accounted for less than 50% of the total training experience in the majority (65%) of the training programs, and there was a substantial need for more effective mentorship within the clinical research setting.  

That same year, ASH launched an enhanced, extensive education and mentorship program to address many of the obstacles interfering with the recruitment and retention of physicians dedicated to patient-oriented clinical research. The ASH Clinical Research Training Institute (CRTI) — which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year — is a unique, year-long program that offers broad education on clinical research methods, research collaborations, statistical analysis, and managing the demands of family and career.  

AndrésGomez De Leon, MD, associate professor of hematology at Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Mexico, participated in CRTI in 2019, shortly after completing his fellowship and beginning his work in acute leukemia and hematopoietic cell transplantation. “CRTI gave me the confidence to trust myself and conquer my impostor syndrome. It helped me improve my clinical research skills and provided me with connections to receive an ASH Global Research Award for our national leukemia working group, and later to develop one of the first investigator-initiated studies in Mexico.”  

Years later, Dr. Gomez De Leon continues to work with his CRTI mentors and peers, and he serves in a faculty capacity for CRTI Latin America, helping to train the next-generation of exceptional physician-scientists. To help incoming participants gain an edge, he advised them to look through the roster beforehand to identify peers and faculty with common interests, even if that might seem a bit intimidating at first: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for career advancement, to make connections, and to think big. For the introverts out there like me, take a deep breath and step up to whoever you want to meet and say ‘Hi!’ Remember, they are there for you. I promise you won’t regret it.” 

Jeffrey Lebensburger, MD, director of the Pediatric Hematology Section at Children’s of Alabama and CRTI co-director from 2020-2022, echoed these sentiments. He described CRTI as the launching pad for his career in translational research and emphasized the scale of this intensive experience. He urged incoming CRTI participants to relish in all aspects of the experience — from the academic to the personal: “Fantastic leaders take a week out of their busy summer and away from their loved ones to focus on you and your career. Never again will you be in a place for one week where the sole focus is on making you and your research better.” 

Indeed, a survey conducted 10 years after the launch of CRTI found that graduates of the first seven classes (140 trainees) had received at least 144 external grant awards and published more than 1,000 peer-reviewed manuscripts.1 Ten years later, both the data and personal narratives collected from graduates support the value of enhanced mentoring experiences in developing the next authorities in patient-oriented clinical research, with 95% of respondents reporting a significant impact of CRTI on their career trajectories.  

As the program enters its third decade, other data have prompted ASH to take a fresh look at reducing disparities in CRTI application scoring.  In response to an analysis of 17 years of CRTI data, ASH has implemented a change to the scoring rubric for CRTI applications, which now includes an overall priority score to encourage a more holistic approach to application review, prompting reviewers to consider diversity and the “distance traveled” as critical components of the evaluation. 

While the academic value of the program cannot be understated, there’s something else that emerges when like-minded individuals gather to focus on a common goal — the blossoming of relationships with peers that provide support and comfort. In an article published in last year’s ASH News Daily, Kathryn Lurain, MD, opened up about the difficult personal experiences she faced as a member of the 2020 CRTI cohort, whose retreat was delayed nine months due to the COVID-19 pandemic: “It was the pre-dawn hikes and late-night cocktails spent cackling together about disastrous dating experiences and embarrassing encounters with famous hematologists that fed my soul. Compassionate new friends shared their own experiences with losing a parent and assured me that my inability to focus on work was not unusual. I am thankful to the CRTI family who helped me through a challenging time in my life and taught me that there are special people who can make the trials and tribulations of a career in academia a riotous, enjoyable time.”  

Sources 

  1. Burns LJ, Clayton CP, George JN, et al. The ASH Clinical Research Training Institute (CRTI) Positively Impacts the Success of Early Career Hematologists in Patient-oriented Clinical Research. Blood. 2013;122(21):1679. 
  2. Vesely SK, King A, Vettese E, et al. Influence of participant and reviewer characteristics in application scores for a hematology research training program. Blood Adv. 2023;7(15):4064-4071. 

 

The Graduate: A Member of the First CRTI Class Looks Back

Neil Goldenberg, MD, PhD 

Associate Dean for Research and Professor of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, St. Petersburg, FL 

You were a graduate of the very first CRTI class. How do you feel about that distinction? 

Like many colleagues that I admire, I’ve had a bit of a pioneering spirit academically and professionally since my undergraduate years, pursuing paths that were not usually “typical”. From my perspective, the opportunity to contribute in even a small way to something innovative and impactful like CRTI is one of the great privileges of careers in academic medicine and health science more generally.  

 What’s your favorite memory of your time in the year-long program? 

One of my favorite memories from my CRTI faculty years (2008-2010) was when, as folks were gathering for late-evening informal discussions after dinner, there was a three-piece band playing classic rock in the lobby of the hotel. I was on the faculty at University of Colorado at the time and was sitting with fellow CRTI faculty members Jim Casella and Pat Brown of Hopkins. Pat mentioned casually that listening to them made him want to join in. I asked him if he played, and he replied that, yes, he gigged with a band back home in Baltimore when not on call; he played electric guitar and did some vocals. Jim chimed in by half-jokingly accusing Pat of “confabulating”. Well, that’s all it took. No sooner had the song ended than Pat went up to the guy on lead guitar and vocals, said a few words to him, slung the guitar over his shoulder, nodded to the bassist and drummer, and proceeded to play and sing a searing rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.” I’m pretty sure that Jim never underestimated Pat again.  

What advice would you give to someone who is entering the program? How could she or he make the most out of CRTI?  
 

In a phrase, give it everything you’ve got. Like many pursuits in life, what you get out of it is directly related to what you put into it. Soak up every minute of the didactics, flipped-classroom learning, small groups, networking, informal interactions, and everything else CRTI has to offer. One of the aspects I remember most about CRTI is how exhausted I felt amid assignments to work on refinements to my study during each rare moment of “down time” throughout a very long CRTI day in its inaugural year, in which the evening talks over dinner (career retrospectives and the like) were followed by long hours of informal interactions “at the bar”, leaving too few hours for sleep—and then rinse and repeat (albeit with fresh content and experiences) the next day. There’s always the opportunity for a nap on the flight home. 

 

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