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Win-Win: SLAS and Keck Graduate Institute Collaborate on JALA Special Issue

Students from the Keck Graduate Institute School of Applied Life Sciences put their best work forward in the October 2015 special issue of the Journal of Laboratory Automation (JALA) on In Vitro Diagnostic Technology Reviews. The rigor of the peer review and revision process boosted their professional experience and career confidence and resulted in a meaningful special issue for the life sciences R&D and technology community.


It started with a required course. It ended with a big publishing opportunity. Ten of the 87 students enrolled in the AL320 Medical Diagnostics course at the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), Claremont, CA, took the opportunity to continue that semester's key assignment through another six months of rewriting and editing. This happened when the editors at JALA offered them the opportunity to turn their team-based written reports into technology review articles for a special issue.

The result, In Vitro Diagnostic Technology Reviews from the Keck Graduate Institute School of Applied Life Sciences, scrutinizes subjects relevant to infectious diseases (diagnosis and management of HCV infection, sepsis pathogen identification), oncology (microRNAs as breast cancer biomarkers), neurodegenerative disorders (biomarkers for Alzheimer's Disease) and prenatal diagnostics (prenatal screening for chromosomal aberrations). The manuscripts provide background on the different disease states and relevant biomarkers, then discuss technologies for disease screening, diagnosis, prognosis, treatment selection and treatment monitoring via established and new methods. According to KGI faculty advisors Angelika Niemz, Ph.D. and Jim Osborne, Ph.D., who lead the medical diagnostics course, the authors were relatively new to the world of scientific publishing and the process of peer review was an experience they won't forget.

"Writing manuscripts for a rigorously peer-reviewed scientific journal can be, well..." Niemz pauses. Osborne finishes: "You're glad when you are done!" She laughs as she adds: "It's like Dorothy Parker said: 'I hate writing, but I love having written.'"

Niemz has been directing the medical diagnostics course for 10 years and has team taught the course with Osborne for the past seven years. The required class gives students pursuing master's degrees and professional certificates a good introduction to the in vitro diagnostics industry by enabling them to understand and ultimately design diagnostic assays and devices, as well as requiring them to apply fundamental project management tools to implement an interdisciplinary team-based project. The results of this coursework are in-depth and insightful reports prepared by teams of students.

"The JALA editors encouraged us to submit these reports for publication," says Niemz, an SLAS2014 short course instructor and the Arnold and Mabel Beckman professor at KGI. "We knew it would take a lot of effort to push the students through the additional hurdles of publishing after the formal class time ended, but when we proposed the idea to the students, they were very enthusiastic despite the extra work they would need to invest to get their manuscripts published." Each of the five teams chose two team members to represent the group as primary authors and complete the editing process.

One of those enthusiastic student authors is Nakia Sarad, M.Sc., a graduate of the KGI Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Certificate (PPC) and Masters of Science programs, who will attend medical school at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York this fall. Sarad and co-author Cole Schaffer, B.S., a PPC recipient from KGI, worked on a team of seven students on the project that eventually became the JALA manuscript, "Biomarkers in the Diagnosis and Prognosis of Alzheimer's Disease."

"At first I didn't know what it meant to be published or what the process would require," says Sarad. "I was just happy that the professors chose our project and paper. I didn't realize how you had to adapt your work. Altering and improving the scientific report before it went to publication took longer than I thought it would, but it was well worth the effort."

In the end, Sarad, Schaffer et al. were very proud to be included in the JALA Special Issue. As Sarad heads off to medical school this fall, she says her publishing experience will go with her. "I definitely think this process has helped validate my position as a scientist and as a person in medicine," she says. "It took something we studied throughout the course and made it real. "The publishing experience involved many of the same activities that will be a part of the medical school environment – research, studying clinical trials and writing. It definitely benefits my future to have had this strong foundation with KGI and JALA."

Meeting Core Curriculum Goals

The Professional Science Master's Movement was launched in the late 1990s with major funding from both the Alfred P. Sloan and the W.M. Keck Foundations. KGI focused on educating future leaders in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical, healthcare product and bioagricultural industries. In addition to educating students in domain-specific content knowledge, KGI sets institutional learning objectives that include outcomes such as critical thinking, information literacy and communication skills – both oral and written – that reach a broad audience with different backgrounds. While written communication requirements occasionally include publishing opportunities, it's not always the norm.

KGI offers a few courses that emphasize scientific writing, in addition to research opportunities and the Institute's capstone Team Master's Project, which occasionally produces a piece for publication. However, "It is not ordinary for students to get this kind of publishing experience," says Osborne, who is the Robert E. Finnigan professor of applied life sciences, as well as director of the Center for Biomarker Research and curator of the Science Heritage Center at KGI. "The manuscripts that the students produced for JALA are a detailed analysis of their particular fields."

The students in KGI's master's and certificate programs come from traditional science and engineering undergraduate majors. Some have worked in industry before and others come straight from undergraduate studies. "The goal is to train them for leadership roles in the applied life sciences industry, which means they need a broader knowledge base," says Niemz. "An important aspect of this goal is introducing students to interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as the interplay of science content, business and regulatory affairs."

Niemz observes that while a skill such as scientific writing is challenging to some students, it is imperative to their future careers. "It's the bar set to which you have to measure up," she says. "As for career development, having a published peer-reviewed article on their resumes or CVs will help them later on. Future employers will see the high level of work of which the students are capable."

James D. Sterling, Ph.D., KGI Professor of Applied Life Sciences and the 2008 President of the Association for Laboratory Automation (ALA), explains that for a Ph.D. student, publishing in several peer-reviewed publications to receive the degree is implicit, but not so for those pursuing master's degrees. "Master's students don't always publish, so this opportunity to appear in JALA is important to our students," he says. "Students need to have a deeper understanding of the publishing process by having done it themselves."

Part of understanding the process is first cultivating a passion about things the students believe in and then helping them understand how to present that information in a professional manner to both fellow researchers and the executives who are going to fund it, Osborne comments. "We take pride in the passion the students demonstrated by going the extra mile on the JALA Special Issue," he says. "That's what you try to accomplish when you teach: raise the passion about the topic."

Sarad agrees. She connected more thoroughly to both the medical diagnostics course and the publishing opportunity by researching a topic that was already close to her. "I am interested in Alzheimer's disease because my family experienced problems with dementia in my grandparents," she says. "I have a personal connection with it and feel compelled to learn more about it. By researching the topic and going through rounds of editing to fine tune our work for publication, I learned how much science doesn't know yet about this disease. We know the symptoms, but we don't know what causes it. There's so much more research that can be done. I hope that articles like this are a stepping stone to help direct research in biomarkers that can help diagnose patients earlier and treat the symptoms more effectively."

The Process

There is an obvious difference between submitting a manuscript for peer review and presenting it for a grade. "You have to do some rewriting," says Osborne. "While the topics and the conclusions of the papers are the same, they had to be written in a more professional manner."

This was achieved by working with the course professors and carefully following the reviewers' requests and guidance, which according to Niemz, pushed the author teams to fill in research holes and delve deeper into their stories. "The reviewers wanted the students to present solid conclusions and have data to back them up," she says, adding that the author teams on each of the five projects had close working relationships with the editors.

"We really appreciate the support and dedication given to us throughout the whole process, especially when you consider that JALA Editor-in-Chief Edward Kai-Hua Chow, Ph.D., does this for every issue!" says Niemz. "It was a nice collaborative effort between JALA and KGI."

Sarad observes that following the reviewers' comments was key. "It was important to understand why they didn't find a part important, or what were they looking for instead. The reviewers and editors were great about offering suggestions and requesting specifics. We appreciated it and used their guidance to fine tune our work," she says. "We had been working on this subject for a year and sometimes we couldn't see outside the box, so it was helpful to connect with someone who had a fresh perspective. The reviewers' comments led to really great improvements," she says, noting that Osborne and Niemz also offered invaluable perspective and direction.

Processing critiques offers real-world training for these future scientists whether they present papers for publication or prepare proposals for business groups. "You don't want to jump off a cliff or attack your commentators, you want to thoughtfully address the comments," says Niemz. "If you have holes in there, it's better that these holes get fixed before it goes out the door. It makes the success oh so much sweeter in the end."

Osborne agrees. "The students need to grasp that if somebody says 'no' that means you have information that they don't know. You go back and redo your proposal. They either convince you that it's no good, or you'll convince them to fund it," he states. Osborne brings a unique perspective to the medical diagnostics program. Prior to KGI, he sought out and tested new technology as director of advanced technology development at Beckman Coulter, Inc.

"Unfortunately, at Beckman Coulter I turned down about 99 percent of the projects that were presented by universities," he comments. "The researchers either did not have appropriate data or didn't understand customer needs. In some cases, the idea was novel enough that we brought it in house and did the necessary research/development work ourselves, completing the marketing and regulatory work to make a good product." He wants to ensure that his students know how to navigate the process of presenting ideas so that their best work doesn't get turned down in the proposal phase. Publishing in the JALA Special Issue helped with this goal.

For Sarad, the publishing process not only developed and fine-tuned her professional writing skills, it helped her develop a comprehension of other authors' works. "I appreciate reading reviews a lot more now than I used to," she says. "Before, in my undergraduate courses within my major, we had to read a lot of journals. When I read reviews now, I realize now how easy the authors make it to understand the material."

Sarad offers this advice to other student authors: "If you have an opportunity to publish, do it. It's not often that someone comes to you with this kind of proposal. Even if the rewriting and editing process takes a lot of time and effort, make the most of that opportunity. It's a great chance to improve your writing and presentation skills."

Overall, Niemz saw the JALA Special Issue as a great opportunity for the students to learn how to push their work "to the level of accuracy, completeness and professional writing needed to be published in a first-class, peer-reviewed journal," she says. "In terms of the end result, this is something that we were very happy to put our names on."

A Continuing Partnership

While the JALA Special Issue represents one of the latest efforts to provide experiences that prepare students for careers in life sciences companies, it is not the first collaboration between the Institute and the Society. The two groups have forged a strong, long-standing partnership since KGI's inaugural class of 28 Professional Science Master's students enrolled in August 2000.

"Many KGI students have attended the SLAS International Conference and Exhibition over the years," says Sterling. Some second-year students attend the event as part of KGI's Team Master's Project, in which teams of three to six students work with a liaison from a sponsoring company to solve real problems in life sciences. The students' intent in attending the SLAS event is to touch base with their industry sponsors, many of which exhibit at the SLAS event. While there, the students also participate in a short course or attend a day of the conference.

As time and travel allowed in the past, dating back to SLAS's history as the ALA before the 2010 merger with the Society for Biomolecular Sciences (SBS), KGI students also provided volunteer support for the annual conference, from filling attendee registration bags, to serving as room monitors and gathering head counts during the sessions. Many of these KGI graduates eventually found employment with SLAS member companies. "I have gone to SLAS conferences and seen past graduates at work for life sciences companies on the exhibition floor," notes Sterling. "It's exciting to see some of these people 15 years later who have moved into management."

SLAS CEO Greg Dummer highly regards the process of students finding their career path through collaborative efforts. "The SLAS academic community has been a vibrant group for our Society on a number of levels creating interaction with pharmaceutical research companies, suppliers and other technical companies; which is vitally important," he says. "But it is that connection to the student community through outstanding educational partners such as KGI that really is interesting and fruitful. Whenever we can advance the education and career paths of students in our scientific space, we get really excited," he says. "KGI is obviously dedicated to this same ideal, and we're as grateful to be collaborators today as we have been for the past decade."

An important new component in the Society's ongoing commitment to enabling students to pursue advanced degrees and ultimately careers in quantitative biosciences is the new SLAS Graduate Education Fellowship Grant Program, which was launched with $1M of funding and announced at SLAS2015 by Society President Dean Ho, Ph.D. The program will fund students at institutions with noted graduate-level educational research programs that are consistent with SLAS's defined scope toward quantitative biosciences and/or life sciences.

Through the program, a specific student and a specific research project(s) of that student will be selected by the institution, and the institution will be awarded the grant to be applied to that student's academic benefits. An educational organization may apply for a grant of up to $50,000 per year, per student, for two consecutive years. SLAS is accepting applications through Oct. 23, 2015, with the first grant being awarded after SLAS2016.

The $1M with which SLAS is seeding this new program is in addition to the more than $150,000 the Society allocates annually to underwrite existing student programs and participation by way of the SLAS Tony B. Academic Travel Award Program, student-focused programming, deeply discounted memberships and journal access, career services and related skills development. In order to sustain and expand the SLAS Educational Fund, the Society intends to conduct future fundraising initiatives among SLAS members and the industries SLAS serves.

October 5, 2015