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A Decade of Research Growth

May 10, 2021
Cover from winter magazine shows illustration of many research elements like lab coats and microchips with 10 years on a badge in the middle

When the MGH Institute decided a decade ago to embark on creating an authentic research enterprise, its total grant portfolio sat at a modest $750,000. While some faculty did focus on research, the school lacked a comprehensive research program that could complement its excellent reputation in educating health care professionals.

“Research had always been part of the Institute’s mission, but it had never been part of its focus,” says Dr. Robert Hillman, an internationally renowned voice researcher who has held several faculty and administrative roles at the IHP over the past 25 years.

A report submitted by an advisory panel led by former Trustee Dr. John Guttag changed that, stating in no uncertain terms that the Institute’s long-term viability would be greatly enhanced by making research an integral part of its operations. With the school being located in Boston, one of the world’s largest and most renowned research centers, its leaders knew competing head-on with such powerhouses as Harvard and MIT didn’t make sense. Instead, they decided to concentrate on a topic that already was integral to its core mission—rehabilitation. To do so, the school would have to attract established researchers to jump start the initiative. The report also recommended establishing a PhD program in rehabilitation sciences to enhance the school’s research culture, provide senior researchers with the support needed to bolster their work, and prepare a new generation of investigators.

Together with enhancing nursing research, the initiative would focus on the types of conditions where there are major lingering questions that could only be answered by skilled researchers in the school’s existing disciplines, such as the recovery of abilities lost through accident, disease, or injury. It also would identify tools and treatments to allow patients to function at their full potential in society—answering questions that few investigators were asking.

A decade after the Board of Trustees signed off on the report’s recommendations, the school has made tremendous progress. In January, the Institute passed the $20 million mark in its total grant portfolio, an amazing 2,500% increase. There are now several full-time senior researchers, with plans to add more. The number of active grants has increased 18-fold, from two to 36. More than 50 PhD students and postdocs have been trained by 25 active researchers. Accepted publications and conference presentations by the full-time faculty have increased exponentially.

For Hillman, who was the inaugural associate provost for research and just recently stepped down as director of the PhD program, the results have surpassed even the most optimistic projections: “It’s become larger more quickly than we had hoped,” he says.

An Auspicious Beginning

Tiffany Hogan sits in a chair at a computer with Jordan Green standing behind her
 Drs. Jordan Green and Tiffany Hogan arrived at the MGH Institute
in 2013 to help start the school’s research initiative.

At the University of Nebraska, Dr. Jordan Green was studying ways to improve the communication of persons with end-of-life speech impairments. Green, who held an endowed professorship, learned that the Institute was looking for established researchers. He was intrigued by the opportunity to help start the fledgling initiative, especially with its location in one of the country’s leading regions for biomedical research. After meeting Hillman and other school leaders, he was so hooked that he convinced his colleague, Dr. Tiffany Hogan, to join him in Charlestown. “Their vision of what they wanted to create, the enthusiasm of the administrators, and the support they were offering were outstanding,” says Green, the IHP’s director of the Speech and Feeding Disorders Lab and associate provost for research. “Tiffany and I both thought it was a great opportunity to grow what we were doing.”

Soon after their arrival in 2013, Green’s lab and Hogan’s Speech and Language Literacy (SAiL) Lab moved into the Center for Health and Rehabilitation Research, a 14,000- square-foot state-of-the-art facility. Green, who is the inaugural Matina Souretis Horner Professor in Rehabilitation Sciences, and the members of his research team have been awarded over 20 grants, industry contracts, and competitive scholarships to support their research. Green has worked extensively with surgeons at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to help facial transplant patients improve ways to talk and eat. And for the past two years, he has worked with Harvard University physics professor Dr. Michael Brenner and Google’s Euphonia team to develop AI technology that helps people with even the most severe speech disorders communicate. (See story, page 19.)

Hogan and her team have concentrated on improving educational outcomes for children and adults with speech, language, and reading impairments. After developing a pilot program with students at Harvard-Kent Elementary School in Charlestown with a grant from the accounting firm RSM, she received a $3.9 million R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in January to expand the program to multiple locations in Massachusetts and other states— the largest single grant in the MGH Institute’s history.

Physical therapist Dr. Teresa Kimberley is director of the Brain Recovery Lab. Using a five-year NIH grant, her lab is investigating how neuroimaging and non-invasive brain stimulation can help people recover from the neurological disorder dystonia. She is also helping to lead an interdisciplinary group that investigates how to predict and improve recovery from stroke. Kimberley, who is a core faculty member in the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Neurology in the Center for Neurotechnology and Neurorecovery and a member of the research staff at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, is interim director of the Institute’s PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences program.

Dr. Joanna Christodoulou, director of the Brain, Education, and Mind (BEAM) Lab, also at the research center, has gained national recognition studying the so-called “summer slump” in school-aged children and is co-leading, with researchers at MIT, a project funded by the National Science Foundation on reading and math disabilities. And physical therapist Dr. Janet Kneiss is using a National Institute on Aging grant to investigate whether cancer survivors diagnosed with severe cancer-related fatigue can be helped by changing their exercise regimen.

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Dr. Nara Gavini focuses on managing and advancing
the IHP’s research and scholarship programs.

Incubating New Researchers

Dr. Nara Gavini, who has been a principal investigator with National Science Foundation, NIH, and USDA grants, was named the inaugural executive director of research in 2019. A former chief of the NIH Office of Extramural Programs at the National Institute of Nursing Research and chair of its diversity programs, he is tasked with managing and advancing the IHP’s research and scholarship programs, including supporting ongoing research operations, facilitating faculty development, and promoting research partnerships.

One priority is cultivating and developing early-stage investigators, who have 10 or fewer years of research experience. To that end, an interprofessional grant writing support group, currently organized by Dr. Yael Arbel, an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, and Dr. Julie Keysor, a professor of physical therapy, offers monthly meetings with established researchers.

Another initiative is the Research Mentoring Program. Led by Gavini, it pairs new researchers with their more seasoned counter- parts to accelerate getting external funding. Fifteen faculty have enrolled since 2018, and all seven in the initial cohort have since been awarded external grants and promoted in their departments. Arbel, Dr. Sofia Vallila Rohter, and Dr. Lauryn Zipse, co-directors of the Cognitive Neuroscience Group, were part of the first cohort. The three speech-language pathologists, who use behavioral and neuroscience methods to examine the relationship between learning, language ability, and cognitive factors, have each been awarded at least one NIH grant, and Arbel has received three totaling almost $3 million.

Other support is provided by two assistant professors in the Center for Interprofessional Studies and Innovation, Dr. Annie Fox and the newly hired Dr. Perman Gochyyev, who evaluate and analyze the data needed for grant submissions. Michael Moody, the senior grants administrator, provides pre- and post-grant award support.

The school has created several recognitions to spur research, including the Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, the New Investigator Award, and the Excellence in Mentoring Award. Several faculty have been awarded fellowships or have received other financial incentives that enable them to dedicate more time to their research. And last fall, the Research Operations Committee funded eight small grants to 20 faculty to examine the effects of the coronavirus on health care. “We want to help our early-stage investigators establish themselves so they can get on and navigate up the NIH ladder,” says Gavini.

Last year, the School of Nursing developed an Office of Research and Scholarship, naming Dr. Ruth Palan Lopez its director and inaugural associate dean for research and the Jacques Mohr Professor of Geriatric Nursing Research. Four priorities were identified: translational research and clinical practice; nursing and interprofessional education; climate change, climate justice, and health; and robotics, artificial intelligence, and big data. An initial step was the creation of the Center for Climate Change, Climate Justice, and Health. Led by Dr. Patrice Nicholas, the center has been featured in several prestigious publications including the New England Journal of Medicine and
has partnered with institutions and nursing organizations both locally and globally to generate awareness on the health impacts of climate change.

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Dr. Ruth Palan Lopez is the inaugural director of
the School of Nursing Office of Research and Scholarship.

“Nurses at the IHP are conducting world- class research and improving the lives of patients, families, and communities,” says Palan Lopez, who returned to the Institute after two years as the McMahan McKinley Endowed Professor in Gerontology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “We want to support nurse researchers and scholars to conduct and disseminate rigorous scientific inquiry and scholarly activities that advance practice and improve the health of people worldwide.”

The Next Decade

“Our research programs, and their remark- able success, are impacting the entire IHP community,” says Dr. Alex Johnson, the provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Many of our faculty members are increasingly engaging in impactful projects that ultimately affect patient care. Students are engaging in work in research labs across the IHP. And new collaborations are being formed across the MGB system every day. It’s a point of pride for all of us.”

The school’s teaching faculty also are increasing their efforts, exemplified by the annual Scholarship and Research Day. Created a few years ago with a smattering of submissions, this year’s event boasted individual and collaborative presentations by over 40 faculty, PhD students, and alumni. Furthermore, accepted publications, posters, and conference presentations continue to rise each year. “When I look at these numbers, it shows the research culture is catching up with our values in education and clinical work,” says Johnson. “Faculty are pushing their careers ahead and bringing us with them.”

The interdisciplinary PhD in Rehabilitation Sciences program continues to be successful in training budding clinical research scientists. As well as taking core courses, students receive mentorship and training to pursue research for their own projects. They also provide crucial support for the school’s full-time researchers, as do a growing number of postdocs. Several graduates have joined the IHP faculty after graduation.

Gavini and Green now sit on more than a dozen research committees at hospitals throughout Mass General Brigham, strengthening the IHP’s connection within the health care system and ensuring it has a seat at the table, as well as fostering potential partnerships. For example, MGB’s Institutional Review Board recently agreed to provide expedited reviews of capstone projects by direct-entry students, of which 39 were recently approved.

Other partnerships with medical researchers at many of Boston’s other hospitals and
area universities are also strengthening the Institute’s reputation. This, in turn, has helped recruit more faculty with a strong research focus, which has attracted more direct-entry applicants who are interested in incorporating research into their work after graduation.

Plans are underway to develop research clusters in which the Institute can leverage its existing expertise in certain areas, such as literacy and rehabilitation. Another possibility is creating an interprofessional initiative at the Sanders IMPACT Practice Center where researchers can incorporate the center’s clients into their studies, a “living lab,” as Green calls it. “We’re in a sweet spot that has developed into a self-supporting cycle,” he says. “Now that we’ve reached this level, we want to reinforce and expand on what we’ve accomplished.”

When asked about what lies ahead, Gavini is optimistic. “I think we can reach $30 million in our total grant portfolio in the next few years,” he says. “Definitely.”