KL2 Program Creates Momentum for Junior Faculty and UK's Research Enterprise

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 11, 2014) -- For junior faculty with clinical and/or teaching responsibilities, it's difficult to find enough time to prioritize their own research.  On top of time constraints, junior faculty members often have limited experience in the precise art of writing successful federal grant applications and managing large grants. It takes time, training, and funding to accelerate a research career. The KL2 Career Development Program provides these resources to investigators to do just that.   

Operated by the University of Kentucky Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), the KL2 program is a competitive research training and funding opportunity for faculty looking to jumpstart their careers in clinical and translational research. The goal of the program is to assist awardees, called KL2 Scholars, in obtaining an individual career development award or an independent investigator award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). To this end, the program requires that scholars outline a clear professional trajectory and then provides them with a robust, wrap-around package of support and training to achieve it. The program is part of the Training, Education, and Mentoring program of the CCTS. 

"We're not just paying their salaries. We're helping them identify a project, articulate a career development plan, and learn essential research skills," said Victoria King, career development director at the CCTS. "It's not enough to protect someone's time or give them money. We really have to help them develop the skills to become physician scientists and expert researchers."

KL2 scholars receive salary support to protect 75 percent of their time for research for two years. During this time, they also benefit from a multidisciplinary team of research and career development mentors who provide continuous feedback on their research projects and grant applications. K-Club, which meets twice a month, provides an opportunity for the KL2 Scholars to present their work and receive feedback from the diverse expertise of the KL2 faculty. Didactic coursework in subjects like research methods and protocol development provides training in the logistical aspects of grant writing and management. Scholars also receive $20,000 for research costs, $500 for textbooks, and a yearly allowance of $2,500 to attend two academic conferences.

Attending and presenting at academic conferences is an important part of the professional development for KL2 Scholars, who receive focused training in presenting their research.

"One of the most important things for these scholars is getting out and going to national meetings, so they can network and build a name for themselves as leaders in their field," said King.

Two streams of funding support the KL2 Program. One is the Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) from the NIH, housed at the CCTS. A primary aim of CTSA is to train, sustain, and foster collaboration between future leaders in clinical and translational science, and the KL2 program is a key component of that effort. The program is also supported by university funding, reflecting the institutional commitment to developing a team of upcoming translational researchers at UK.

The KL2 program constitutes targeted investment in the research and careers of the scholars, and provides a significant return on investment. So far, UK's KL2 program boasts a 100 percent success rate, with the first three KL2 Scholars successfully obtaining independent investigator awards. The program invested around $450,000 to support the work of the first three scholars. They graduated from the program as seasoned, expert researchers--and have brought in over $4 million in new research funding through their subsequent independent grant awards.

"The key thing about the program is the remarkable success it's already had with the people who've gone through it," said Dr. Gerald Supinski, director of the KL2 Program and associate chair of the department of medicine for research.

He credits the strong career development component and the individualized support and feedback for the success of the program. "We do monitor their progress, and if something isn’t going well, we can step in and help them," he said.

Among the first three KL2 Scholars at UK, Dr. Brandon Fornwalt, earned an Early Independence Award for his research in using MRI technology to study dyssynchrony in pediatric heart disease.  Fornwalt is the first and only UK faculty member to have received the award. Brian Noehren, received a K23 award based on his project, "Prolonged Micro and Macro Alterations to Muscle Following Knee Surgery and Physical Therapy." And Qing-Bai She, earned an RO1 grant following his project, "Biological and Therapeutic Implications of AKT and AR Cooperation in Advanced Prostate Cancer."

The combination of CTSA and university funding has allowed the CCTS to currently support six KL2 Scholars. Dr. Christina Studts is one of them. She describes the KL2 program as "professionally life-changing." Through her KL2 project, she is developing an ultra-brief screening tool to identify elevated behavior problems in preschool-age children. Such problems are predictors of future negative outcomes, such as dropping out of school prematurely, engaging in delinquent behaviors as an adolescent, and developing mental health and substance abuse problems. A faculty member in the Department of Health Behavior in the College of Public Health, Studts originally trained as a licensed clinical social worker and developed a passion for helping children with problematic behavior. But she didn't have time to devote to her own research.  

"The KL2 program has been a huge turning point to give me the support and momentum to tackle this problem that I really care about. It's been the most exciting two years of my professional life," Studts said. "This is what I care about and what I love, and without the KL2 program I don’t know that I would have had the opportunity to totally immerse myself in this work."

Based on her KL2 project, she is currently developing an application for an R34 grant from the NIH. It's part of the three-phase, ten year professional plan that she developed as part of her KL2 application, which forced her to crystalize her own professional trajectory.

"Applying for the KL2 program made me sit down and map out the long-term path for my work and the steps I needed to take to get there," she said.

Dr. Moriel Vandsburger is another current KL2 scholar. He's working to develop molecular magnetic resonance imaging techniques to identify early stages of heart disease in high-risk patients that are excluded from existing diagnostic methods. He credits the KL2 program with protecting his time and fostering collaboration with physicians to generate preliminary data. He also appreciates the continuous feedback on his proposal for an RO1 grant. 

"Each KL2 mentor gives me a different perspective. It's fundamentally changed how I write grants," he said.

While the KL2 programs provide direct benefits to individual researchers, it also generates significant momentum for the research capacity of the entire university by developing elite researchers who can obtain independent awards even in the current atmosphere of restricted funding.  Supinski sees the KL2 program as a model for how to support junior faculty across campus become excellent clinical and translational scientists.

"The entire institution can be very proud of what we've been able to do in just a few years," he said.

King also views the program as a force for change across campus.

"It's a huge commitment to be a physician scientist. You really have to be able to balance your clinical and research efforts. Every time that we take someone in our program and they're successful at getting independent funding, it shows other physicians scientists and individuals who are interested in research that there is a way to balance all of these things - that you can really do it," said King. "We're here to help create that culture at the UK."

The current KL2 Scholars are:

  • Dr. Keisa Bennett, assistant professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, College of Medicine. Project Title: How Social Networks Influence Smoking Behavior in Rural Appalachian Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Persons
  • Dr. Matthew L. Bush, assistant professor, Department of Otolaryngology, College of Medicine. Project Title: Bridging the Gaps: Assessment of Pediatric Hearing Loss in Appalachia
  • Dr. Steven W. Leung, assistant professor, Cardiovascular Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, College of Medicine. Project Title: Differentiating Athlete’s Heart and Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy with Cardiac MRI
  • Ying Liang, assistant professor, Hematology Oncology, Department of Internal Medicine, College of Medicine. Project Title: Role of Latexin in Pathogenesis of Myeloproliferative Neoplasms
  • Christina R. Studts, assistant professor, Department of Health Behavior, College of Public Health. Project Title: Development of an Ultra-Brief Screening Tool for Disruptive Behavior Problems in Preschoolers: First Step Toward a Clinical Intervention in Primary Care
  • Moriel Vandsburger, assistant professor, Department of Physiology, College of Medicine. Project Title: Translational Magnetization Transfer MR Imaging of Myocardial Fibrosis

MEDIA CONTACT: Mallory Powell,