Pediatric brain tumor investigator builds research career with help from NUCATS

Amanda Saratsis, MD, KL2 scholar A year and a half ago, Amanda Saratsis, MD, finished her clinical fellowship at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.  As a new attending physician, she faced the challenge of not only establishing herself as a pediatric neurosurgeon but also as a translational research scientist investigating pediatric brain tumors. This meant she needed to start a new lab, find funding for her research, and learn to navigate the research enterprise.

“The first thing I did was meet with NUCATS and learn about all the resources available,” said Dr. Saratsis, who met with Kelly Carroll, PhD, research science navigator, at Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute, the pediatric affiliate of NUCATS.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Saratsis was awarded a Dixon Translational Research Grant for Young Investigators from Northwestern Memorial Foundation and NUCATS to study pediatric brainstem glioma, a disease with the highest mortality rate of all pediatric solid tumors.

Currently, children diagnosed with brainstem and high-grade glioma have a poor prognosis, but today researchers know more about this cancer today than ever before due to advances in neuroimaging, stereotactic biopsy techniques, and deep genomic sequencing technology. Dr. Saratsis and her research team are building on these discoveries as they work to identify biomarkers of the disease that will, in turn, help to develop new therapeutic strategies to improve the outcomes for children with these brain tumors.

“When I get frustrated with the lack of effective treatment for children I see through my clinical practice, I can go to the lab. It’s a different way to tackle the problem,” she said. “The research we do has the potential to help many more children than I can help with surgery alone by creating new, more effective clinical tools.”

For Dr. Saratsis, receiving the Dixon Award helped launch her research, but it is just one way NUCATS has assisted her as a young investigator. She has received funding from NUCATS through the pilot and voucher award programs to help generate data for NIH funding applications.  In addition, in September 2015, she received a KL2 award. The KL2 award is a structured program designed to assist early career investigators in building a strong research foundation through mentorship, career development opportunities, and workshops on a variety of topics including grant writing, team science and community implementation.

“The program has helped me to set priorities, stay on track and find other scientists here at Northwestern to help me overcome obstacles,” said Dr. Saratsis. “The award has given me a peace of mind that I don’t have to figure everything out on my own; instead, through interaction with my mentorship team and other K awardees, I learn from others’ experiences and which helps me pursue a similar career trajectory. As a new clinician-scientist navigating the research enterprise, it’s nice to know that others are doing this too.”

In addition to the support of her fellow K scholars, Dr. Saratsis learned more about research design, coding pipelines and bioinformatics analysis to ensure that the genomic data coming from her experiments is meaningful, sound and reproducible through the RAMP mentorship program, which is part of the KL2 award.

“In the past year and a half it’s night and day between where I was and where I am today because of NUCATS,” said Dr. Saratsis. “NUCATS has been my home base if I ever need anything.”

Posted: March 1, 2016

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