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A hands-on leadership approach empowers the next generation of researchers

Training the next generation of researchers has been at the forefront of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s mission since its inception.

One way to achieve that has been through the Ph.D. program in Clinical and Translational Science that was developed in response to the fundamental changes taking place in biomedical science research and education in North America and worldwide.

The West Virginia University’s School of Medicine graduate program began in 2015 as a partnership between WVCTSI and WVU Health Sciences’ Office of Research and Graduate Education. Currently led by Dr. Mark Olfert, associate professor in WVU’s departments of Physiology and Pharmacology and Exercise Physiology, and Dr. Paul Chantler, associate professor in WVU’s departments of Exercise Physiology and Neuroscience, the program prepares students to flourish as independent thinkers, innovative collaborators, and biomedical researchers who take a translational approach to improve people's lives. As the program co-directors, Drs. Olfert and Chantler devote their time and resources to manage all aspects of the graduate program and advise students on academic matters. Scientists at heart, they also make sure to lead by example.

Over the last two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted activities across the globe, but it hasn’t stopped the program leadership from making a positive impact through research. Both Chantler and Olfert received prominent grants for their path-breaking projects. In 2021, a $750,000 grant was awarded to Olfert and his research team by the American Heart Association to fund a three-year study on the effects of vaping during pregnancy[i]. Earlier this year, Chantler was also awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the link between Alzheimer’s disease and chronic stress[ii].

With many years of experience in the field, Olfert and Chantler carry forth the lessons they’ve learned to guide early stage researchers juggling the passion for science with the everyday realities of being a scientist, a balance that can sometimes be daunting. The program co-directors find in the mentoring aspect of their job a way to empower future scientists, enrich the trajectory of what can be accomplished and a chance to pay it forward.

“Our graduate students are the cornerstone of our research,” Chantler said. “Without students helping to run experiments and collect data, all our efforts to be successful in science would be limited.”

In an ever-growing competitive profession, mentoring students is no small task. Time is a resource in short supply for principal investigators who already manage a growing portfolio of grants, manuscripts, as well as a lab with many trainees. However, Olfert elaborates that one of the most rewarding aspects of his job is to watch his mentees grow and succeed in science.

“As scientists, we are all driven by the desire to be successful in our respective fields,” Olfert said. “Early in one’s career, this often means personal success and achievements, but down the road, it becomes about helping students, the next generation of scientists, to succeed.”

In addition to the mentor pool that consists of very diverse and highly successful individuals, the CTS Ph.D. program, facilitated by the WVCTSI Professional Development core, has a lot more to offer. The program, which currently has seven doctoral students enrolled, supports scientists and clinicians who want to branch out and work across disciplines broadly defined as basic, clinical and population science.

“The CTS Ph.D. students are required to have a project that spans at least two aspects of translational science (basic and clinical, clinical and population, or basic and population) and thus, this provides the doctoral student with a wonderful understanding as to how we can translate our work and make it applicable to the world,” Chantler said.

With partnerships forged with other professional doctoral programs in medicine, physical therapy, and communication sciences at West Virginia University, clinically-based doctoral students also have the opportunity to create a dual degree for a well-rounded research experience that allows them to become more than practitioners in their fields.

“The goal of the CTS Ph.D. program is to develop biomedical scientists who can integrate findings, information, and observations across disciplines to accelerate and improve the health of individuals and populations,” Olfert said.

As a platform that trains highly qualified scientists from a myriad of disciplines and with a leadership committed to innovative research, the doctoral program in Clinical and Translational Science is on the fast track to ensuring that confident, inquisitive and capable researchers continue to join the scientific community for years to come.

Doctoral students in the Clinical and Translational Science program receive funding from the WVU HSC Office of Research and Graduate Education for their first two years in the program. Funding for the latter years is provided by grant funding secured by their scientific mentor or the academic department.

If you are interested in exploring the different educational programs offered through the WVCTSI Professional Development Core, follow this link.


[i]  American Heart Association Award Collaborative Science Award 20CSA35320107

[ii] Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health, under Award Number R01NS117754. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of NIH.