HERSHEY, Pa. — Katie Schieffer received her undergraduate degree in medical technology because she wanted to make a difference in patients’ lives. When it came time to choose a graduate program, the Bear, Delaware, native looked for a way to continue to fulfill that desire. Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s TL1 Translational Research Training Program was just what she was looking for.
“One of the main deciding factors in my decision to attend Penn State College of Medicine for graduate school was the TL1 program,” Schieffer said. “I initially got involved in research while working in a clinical lab, evaluating a new method of bacterial identification that provides quicker results to clinicians. My research work there made me realize that I wanted a career in translational research, performing research that would translate into the clinical lab and maybe one day have an effect on patient care. I came to graduate school with an interest in developing new diagnostics and improving patient care.”
The National Institutes of Health-funded TL1 program provides full-time support, including a stipend and tuition assistance, to predoctoral graduate and medical students seeking advanced training in clinical and translational research. TL1 scholars expand their major course of study by completing a dual-title Ph.D. in clinical and translational sciences, a graduate certificate in translational science or a master’s degree in public health sciences. A new group of TL1 scholars is selected each year through a competitive application process.
Schieffer, a 2014-2016 TL1 scholar, is the first Penn State graduate to earn the dual-title Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and clinical and translational sciences. Currently affiliated with nine graduate programs on the Hershey and University Park campuses, the clinical and translational sciences dual-title Ph.D. program is the first of its kind in the nation. Through coursework, hands-on learning and a customized internship to existing graduate programs students develop the skills to transform their research findings into health care innovations. While at Penn State, Schieffer published 11 research papers. She was first author on nine of them. She worked in the lab of Dr. Walter Koltun and Gregory Yochum, evaluating the molecular and microbial underpinnings of diverticulitis, a common intestinal disease that has received little research attention.
“We hope through better understanding the molecular basis for disease, we can identify more targeted therapeutics, as currently the only medical option is antibiotic therapy,” she said.
Through her participation in the TL1 research training program and the dual-title Ph.D. program, Schieffer saw firsthand how translating her research from the laboratory might someday affect patient care.
“The clinical rotation was one of my favorite experiences as it really gives an entirely new perspective on the disease that we are researching,” she said. “For me, it was one thing to read about inflammatory bowel diseases in the literature, but to meet the patients and realize how debilitating the disease can be was eye-opening and motivating.“
Schieffer also worked with Dr. Deepa Sekhar to evaluate the relationship between iron deficiency and hearing loss in adolescents. In this project, she used a Clinical and Translational Science Institute-sponsored tool, known as i2b2, that helps researchers access clinical data from specific patient populations for analysis. TL1 scholars receive training in tools like i2b2 and REDCap, a secure, web-based application used to collect and store research data.
“Katie is one of the shining stars of our TL1 program,” said Gail Thomas co-director of the TL1 program at Hershey; Connie Rogers is co-director at University Park. “Not only is she a talented and exceptionally productive scholar, she has been a strong student advocate for clinical and translational research training across Penn State. As the first clinical and translational science dual-title graduate at the College of Medicine, Katie is a terrific role model for students in this relatively new academic discipline.”
One of the most appealing aspects of Schieffer’s expanded graduate training was the ability to explore clinical research disciplines that she otherwise would not have encountered.
“I found the faculty and students incredibly encouraging and enthusiastic,” Schieffer said. “I thought the coursework was stimulating and opened up new fields that I never thought I would be interested in, such as epidemiology and bioinformatics.”
She will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio, which taps into another of her passions. Schieffer volunteers with the Child Life program at Penn State Children’s Hospital and as a wish granter with the Make-A-Wish Philadelphia, Delaware, and Susquehanna Valley chapter.
“My post-doc is an exciting opportunity as the Institute for Genomic Medicine is highly translational, merging both the clinical laboratory with research scientists to quickly advance research findings into diagnostics that are useful for the clinical team, the patient and the patient’s family. This position is the perfect marriage of my undergraduate and graduate degree, and my volunteer work. Penn State and the TL1 program were instrumental in helping me develop the bioinformatics skills necessary to begin my new career with Nationwide Children’s Hospital.”
With a unique combination of clinic experience coupled with biomedical and translational research, Schieffer knows her career path can take her in many directions.
“I know I want a career that allows me to do research that has a direct patient impact,” she said. “Whether I decide to pursue a career similar to my post-doc or venture into the public health sector is still unforeseen at the moment — but that is the beauty of this training as whatever I decide to do as a career, I will be prepared.”
Applications are now being accepted for the next group of TL1 scholars. In addition, applications are being accepted for the related 10-week long Penn State Summer Translational Science Fellowship.