Q&A with Rob Olivo: MENTORS program assists research fellows

Friday, August 12, 2016

The beginning stages of building a research career have their challenges, which can be difficult to face without guidance. Duke Department of Medicine’s initiative, the Medicine Endeavor to Nurture Trainees to Research Success, or MENTORS, was created to guide fellows who are interested in basic, clinical, translational, or health sciences research careers.

Directing the MENTORS program are Deborah Fisher, MD, MHS, associate professor of medicine (Gastroenterology), and Corrine Voils, PhD, professor of medicine (General Internal Medicine).

“Our overarching goal for the program is to provide a complementary resource that helps research fellows maximize the productivity of their research time and prepare for a research career,” Dr. Fisher said. 

“We listen to each fellow’s short term and long term goals and work with them to track progress and address any barriers.  We provide seminars in topics not necessarily covered by research classes or clinical rotations such as time management and communication.  We also provide a community at a time that some fellows can feel isolated from their peers as they work in a lab or cubicle.”

In the program, trainees gain knowledge and experience by participating in a professional development seminar series, presenting their research to faculty and peers for feedback, and meeting one-on-one with the directors each fall and spring for feedback and advice on their goals and progress.

Among the fellows and trainees to participate in the program is Nephrology research fellow Rob Olivo, MD, who joined MENTORS when the program first launched. Since joining MENTORS last fall, Dr. Olivo has noticed a significant improvement in his abilities to conduct and present research. 

Q: How were you introduced to the MENTORS Program?
A: I first learned about the MENTORS program through an email that was sent out to the research fellows within the various divisions of the Department of Medicine. The program offered an additional resource base for those who were rather new to a research fellowship. It was also for fellows who were looking for other ways to supplement their professional development, or looking for various resources at Duke and beyond to help them build their research careers.

Q: Why was MENTORS a good fit for you?
A: Being new to research, it fit what I was looking for, which was another “voice of reason” in helping me navigate the process since my first year of fellowship was very clinical. That first year of fellowship, I spent almost all my time in the hospital. At Duke, hard work and expressing your interests really can open a lot of doors for you. Sometimes it can be overwhelming because those opportunities can accumulate very rapidly.

What this program offered was an additional resource in figuring out, through all the madness, how to carve your own path, what steps to take, and what opportunities you should take advantage­­­­­­­­­ of while you’re building that research career.

All in all, you’re trying to make sense of all these things that are happening simultaneously. For me, that was a big transition going from a clinical year to a year of coursework with the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) and getting deeply involved with my research. Suddenly, I was working at the Duke Clinical Research Institute (DCRI) for the majority of my time. The MENTORS program helped ease that transition.   

Q: What peaked your interests in research?
A: What I’ve learned very quickly here at Duke is that research enhances your clinical experience. When you’re doing day-to-day hospital work and you see a patient in the clinic, you’re helping one person at a time. With research, you’re also looking at an even bigger picture. In the course of your research career, if you find something or discover something, you have the ability to help thousands of patients. You can do things on a bigger scale with research. I recognized that I could combine both that personal aspect of medicine and that intellectual stimulation into the same career. That is what attracted me to doing research in nephrology.

Q: How has the MENTORS program helped you toward your future career goals?
It’s allowed me to communicate my research findings and goals more effectively, to fine-tune my statistical plans for research projects, and to continue thinking about other opportunities for publication and collaboration. It has helped me focus on the bigger picture. While I still haven’t finalized what I specifically want in a career, I remain open to ideas. MENTORS encouraged me to continue that thought process and keep those doors open. 

Q: What was a typical meeting day in the MENTORS program like?
A:  For the weekly sessions, there would be a guest speaker or lecturer. We would have a 30-minute discussion of the day’s topic. It was very informal, and the fellows and directing faculty could raise their hands to ask a question. We could interject if we had thoughts. More discussions were welcomed after the session. It was a relaxed atmosphere.

In addition, every three to six months, Dr. Fisher and Dr. Voils would meet with each of us individually. Together, we reviewed career goals and updates on research progress, and they provided additional feedback. It is another chance for you to communicate about the current barriers you’re facing in your own research because there’s no one else in the room. Having that extra resource available when you need it is helpful.

Q: What surprised you the most about the MENTORS program?
A: I didn’t recognize what a great opportunity it was going to be to meet other research fellows. When away from the clinical services, we see each other when we’re at these meetings, and over time we strike up conversation. Even when it’s not related to our discussion that day, you’re getting research fellows here at Duke from different specialties and with different interests in the same room at the same time.

Also, I hadn’t been very involved in research until I started my research fellowship a year ago. Through MENTORS, we develop new connections with people who are more experienced in different facets of research and can offer us additional assistance.

Q: What were key highlights from your participation in MENTORS?
Even if they’re in a different division than me, I find other fellows are facing very similar challenges in the early stages of their research training. Hearing about others’ experiences in research, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. It’s also nice to have others who you can talk to in a comfortable professional setting about the things that you’re going through. I think that’s one highlight of the program. It really does informally encourage that interaction and collaboration with other research fellows here at Duke.  

Another highlight was the feedback from outside of my department and my research group, which gave me an additional outsider’s perspective. “Consider doing X, Y, and Z to help streamline this,” or “Make this more efficient.” The extra advice was helpful.

Q: How did you feel about your growth professionally and/or personally since MENTORS program?
A: The program has allowed me to tap into the resources available at Duke, and to find opportunities that I otherwise may or may not have heard about during my training.

Q: What do you hope to see with the upcoming re-launch of MENTORS?
A: I anticipate that the program will grow. I believe more research fellows will join in. I think it’s going to encourage and foster more of those interactions between the fellows in different divisions. We all have to start somewhere, and everyone probably has similar questions even if the projects or research interests are very different, so plenty of other fellows can certainly benefit. I look forward to watching the program grow both in size and in the scope of topics covered, which will enhance the early research training experience for fellows at Duke.

This story was written by Tia Mitchell, communications intern for the Department of Medicine.