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A New Way To Participate

One of the characteristics of attending medium to large scientific sessions is the time-honored act of… running from room to room trying to catch glimpses of talks that interested you, but have of course ended up in different rooms, minutes apart. Many of us have done this, and to an extent, I don’t mind it! I can always count on being able to reach my daily step count targets whenever I’m attending a conference, without needing to set aside 30mins dedicated to a walk or morning run.

The current global health crisis has ushered in new and accelerated inevitable changes in the way science research is conducted, disseminated, and discussed within the community. Each one of these aspects has shown the malleable and highly valued ability for science, and society, to adapt to new paradigms of work. There have been many challenges and losses in the way research has been affected (a partial or total work-from-home status doesn’t translate to equal productivity for lab based work). But at the same time, this ongoing pandemic response has also provided a launching pad for some very innovative and future friendly adjustments.

Today I’ll focus on one of those changes, related specifically to conference attendance. This is by no means a novel idea, but I find myself thinking a lot about it, and I’d like to share some of those thoughts. Online based conferences have existed before Covid-19 became a house-hold idea and reality. Even more novel are Social Media “conferences”, an example being the Royal Society of Chemistry putting on the #RSCPoster Twitter Conference earlier this year (planned in early 2019, before covid).

The fact of the matter is, the movement to have scientific meetings and conferences be better adjusted within the online space has been gathering momentum for years. I for one, have served as “Twitter Ambassador” for a handful of conferences over the past couple of years, because conference organizers, participants, and various communities, have found tangible and positive effects of having conferences be more open, interactive, and far-reaching, beyond the walls of the hotel or center that brings together the in-real-life attendees.

(photo taken by Mo Al-Khalaf, 2020)

This year the Basic Cardiovascular Sciences headline annual meeting, better known this week as #BCVS20 is a fully virtual conference. As an early career molecular biologist researching mechanisms of heart disease, this is one of the “can’t miss” events on my calendar. My previous experiences for these type of conferences has been very rewarding, and advantageous in propelling my research and career. Before Covid-19, I was very much looking forward to this meeting scheduled to be in Chicago. When it was announced that the meeting will become fully virtual, I knew that there will be some experience that’ll get lost in the format change. But I also appreciated the diligent and effective leadership that made this call, because this was definitively the right call, for the safety of the attendees, and all the workers that would be involved in administering and pulling off a successful meeting (a meeting that brings 1000+ folks, in one building for a few days).

So far, I must say I find the #BCVS20 experience to be quite rewarding. It is different, and the limited and reformatted ways of networking and engagement takes a little bit of time to get used to. But overall, I believe there is great potential to make this format, or better yet, a hybrid format where both online and in-real-life parallel options available, a very appealing and appropriate next step in the evolution of how these types of meetings can be conducted. The ability to cater to a worldwide audience, and the convenience provided to allow attendees to participate and learn from field experts without the difficulty of planning a trip, is without a doubt an advantage to students and early career professionals, who do frequently face difficulties in attending such meetings.

One thing I note: Unlike past conference going experiences, I definitely need to put in the 30-minute daily jog before or after the day’s sessions… because there is no need to run from room to room to catch talks that you’re interested in… it’s all just a mouse click or head turn to a second screen away!

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Knowledge Advances Incrementally

Learning and advancing one’s personal and professional goals is a dynamic and active process. We never truly “finish” learning anything. We get better and better at tasks the more we practice them. We increase the accuracy of our data the more analysis on bigger and more relevant sets of samples we collect and measure. The scientific method is built on accepting the facts as they get unveiled, fully realizing that optimization and accuracy comes gradually with more work done and more information gathering.

One of the present global issues that I want to address here is the erroneous practice of some individuals that point out shifts in recommendations and gradual changes in the understanding of a scientific/medical phenomenon, and using these shifts and changes in the information shared as basis for doubt and denial for the whole process. Certainly when it comes to complex and novel discoveries/puzzles to solve, there will be a period of optimization and incremental advancement in understanding. These could lead to changes in conclusions from where things were first reported, to where they are now, and to where they will be in the future as more and more science is uncovered and facts are checked and replicated.

The act of refuting what we presently know and understand of a novel discovery or challenge to tackle, simply because the present understanding doesn’t match exactly what was previously reported and shared, is simply an act of refusing to accept that human beings are, by nature, dynamic learners. We gain more as we try, experience, and process information. Humans are not the kind of species that begin and end their lives with the same genetically programmed set of actions and behaviors inherited from the previous generation and are carried down to their progeny. Each one of us knows more now than we knew when we were younger. Experience matters. Time to perform more measurements and analysis brings us closer to accuracy and understanding. In other words, we get wiser as a whole, the more we experience and accumulate data.

Individuals that insist on focusing on the divergence of information coming from science and medicine, that’s separated by a non-trivial amount of time, are trying to sow doubt and nullify the value gained by executing the scientific method to its fullest potential. Accuracy, and a full understanding of anything complex, requires optimization, replication and diverse set of experts working separately and together, to incrementally achieve the most precise understanding of a challenge or novel discovery.

Our society benefits from scientifically assessed and understood information. Evidence-based decision making is far superior to other forms of societal choices, made by and for the public. And as mentioned here, the precision and accuracy of scientific information gathering advances the more time is allowed for investigation and understanding. We should celebrate and embrace changes accumulated with more data analysis and scientific rigor applied to test the facts uncovered along the way.

It is a self-correcting and enhancing mechanism, built into the scientific method and research process that we implement as scientists and healthcare researchers and providers. Sure this means that some data and knowledge will shift with time, but this should be seen as progress, and we should not let mis-informers and pseudoscience spreading behavior and individuals hijack the system of self-correction and improvement built into our method.

And as a last point to make: Scientists, medical researchers, and everyone involved in healthcare, research and academia should find ways to communicate and/or amplify voices of communicators that are on the front-lines of providing evidence-based information to the public. The best use of the scientific process is when the product of this process is shared with everyone.

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Lessons I’ve Learned as Chair

Being a recent graduate just entering the professional stage of one’s career is an especially turbulent time. This is magnified for ones that had a prolonged academic journey, such as advanced medical training, pursuing master’s/doctoral degrees, and any other unique situation that can lead to a long journey of being an official student on paper (because unofficially we’re all students of life, until the end!).

However long and winding road one takes, there comes a time when the stage is set to exit being a student and enter the professional field. This stage is simply known as Early Career (using the naming convention most widely used, including at the American Heart Association). This part of a career journey has the uniqueness of blending learning many new life skills, and professionally performing up to the standards expected from achieving the academic endpoint one has reached (MD, PhD, or any other).

One way a young professional can advance their learning curve and become professionally savvy and focused is by seeking and actively participating in committees within organizations related to their working field. Committees provide a platform where members interact regularly, discuss and plan actions related to the work environment, provide community-building opportunities, and essentially expose their members to a variety of learning experiences that are highly beneficial, both directly and indirectly, in progressing their early career professional journey.

Here I present my personal experience as an example. I have recently concluded my term as Chair of the trainee committee in my institute, and have recently been granted full employment status as part of the reorganization of the employment structure here. I’m now exactly placed in the “Early Career Professional” stage of my journey.  Being part of a committee provided me with many extra layers of understanding on how everything functions within the institution. My long academic stage provided me with skills and experiences within the realm of science, laboratory research and academic scholarship, but precious few glimpses of structures and professional actions outside the lab and classroom settings.

(Image from Pixabay.com CC0)

Working within a committee, and chairing a committee in my personal example, comes with its own learning curve, which can be a daunting thought for an already overwhelmed young professional (or senior student or trainee). But the rewards are plenty, and the effort is worth it at the end. Committee membership can be a rich source for personal and professional education. Some lessons are generalized for everyone to gain, other lessons are more individually centered, for each person to uniquely grow from. Some of the many lessons I’ve learned recently I’ll share here.

I’ve learned how a budget in an institutional structure is managed (which is different from how a personal household budget is done). I’ve learned the names of so many other professionals within the organization outside of my daily interactions. I’ve learned more about the administrative structure of the place where I work in. I sat in meetings that shape the direction of the future of the institution. I learned about leadership, and even more about teamwork. I learned the great value and appreciation for creating a close-knit community within a professional organization. As human beings, we have been creating and living in villages for thousands of years, and nowadays the professional network one works in can be part of that village. Here as well is where one can find opportunities to increase the equity, diversity, and inclusiveness of the professional community within the institution or organization. I had first-hand experience in this. Providing support and a platform for the under-represented can create an entry point for the larger effort required within the whole organization, institution and wider society. We should use all the tools at our disposal (and create new tools when necessary) to continuously provide better results for members of our community that are under-represented or marginalized.

My pitch here at the end to you is to seek out, create when possible, and accept opportunities, to be active in your work organization, and professional societies, during your early career stage (and moving forward). My personal endorsement goes to being an active member of a committee at your institution, and then to expand into national and international societies that exist in your professional field. There is much to learn, a community to join, to build, and a lot to gain towards advancing your professional path, and maybe, the society as a whole.

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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COVID-19 Stage 2: Embracing Progress, Cautiously.

In these early days of May 2020, it seems like “change is in the air”. In the northern parts of this planet (myself based in Canada’s capital), winters’ cold, icy grip has thawed, and signs of nature and life are starting to be spotted everywhere. Of course, no mention of the year 2020 is complete without placing the Covid-19 pandemic in its proper context within the topic discussed. I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and discussions online that too easily link the “spring is upon us” and “life is getting back to its normal rhythm” ethos with the recent positive stories about Covid-19 infections. Reports of daily hospital admittance and mortality rates dropping are signs of progress indeed, specifically in nation states that were hit early and hard by the disease at the start of the year, and in the ensuing first few months.

While this is welcome and encouraging news, I can’t shake the feeling that people are either consciously or subconsciously paralleling the arrival of seasonal change, an end of the typical academic school year, and the learned attitudes of past years, onto what this 2020 calendar year will be like, moving forward from this stage. Undoubtedly, overall status of the Covid-19 pandemic is now changing, with factors like spread rate seemingly decreasing (in spots), knowledge about the virus increasing (everywhere), and local and national healthcare systems all working and adjusting to better handle the situation (with some exceptions). This, in addition to coordinated social, governmental and economical efforts, working in concert to prevent a much worse outcome from unfolding, all indicate advancement and positive aspects of where we stand at the moment, in early May of 2020.

                                                      (Image from pixabay.com CC-0)

However, and you knew I was going to bring up the “however” adverb! Equating what normally is the care-free, and bright-sunshine attitude of previous years to where we are this year, at this stage in the pandemic, is simply not appropriate and could be dangerous. There are still many unknowns about how SARS-CoV-2 may change with the seasonal transitions, not just within the northern hemisphere where we are coming out of winter and into spring and warmer weather, but also minding how will the seasonal changes affect the southern hemisphere, where the temperature changes go from warmer to cooler at this time of year. There are also questions remaining about how different cities and nations are implementing the various step-wise stages of coming out of the strict physical distancing parameters, which helped limit the size of the surge of infection. Will certain districts and cities experience a second wave of infectious spread? Will citizens be able and willing to go back into physical distancing status if needed? Those and many other questions are still left unanswered presently, and it’s too difficult to forecast with the limited data we have at this stage, in early May of 2020.

Having said that, I still want to bring back the sense of positive momentum we are presently experiencing. From a bird’s eye view point: We the people of this planet, united, are more informed, have a better handle over, and are able to deal with the Covid-19 crisis today much better than we were a couple of months ago. Together we can and will progress into the desired advantageous state of preparedness and better reaction to SARS-CoV-2 infection, and resulting disease, this is a fact. We just need to continue to investigate, learn, and plan appropriate steps to take, so that we can all safely reduce the dangers that still are posed by the virus, and take note and find ways to reduce the pain and loss that our communities have experienced so far, and moving forward. Only through those careful steps, and planning ahead, would we really feel like “spring is in the air”, and not a minute before then! Be safe, stay healthy, and care for one another.

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Future Planning in the Time of Corona

(Image from pixabay.com CC-0)

Let me ask you this: How many articles related to COVID-19 did you read, in the past few weeks? Just like most of us, medical science professionals of all kinds, the content we have been consuming most of has been related, directly or indirectly, to the biggest pressing issue the world is dealing with presently. And I’m here to say this is totally fine & appropriate. After all, when was the last time a biomedical issue became the worldwide number 1 topic of interest. SARS-CoV-2 is harming the healthy, and vulnerable patients. It’s also harming society, economy, policy, and more, both in predictable ways and in ways we still have no solid forecast ability for yet. This is why present efforts towards containment, mitigation, and other management actions are so vital and require the buy-in from all individuals in society. In parallel, this is also why the biomedical, and more broadly, the life science field in general, is very much pivoting their attention at the moment, vigorously brainstorming and planning future directions (while #StayingHome of course) in an effort to better understand, deal with, and avoid future similar scenarios that will inevitably happen again.

One of the more crass and unpalatable statements that get thrown around in times like these, especially within the halls of certain types of political and financial power brokers is “Never let a crisis go to waste”. The point being, while people are distracted by the overwhelming day to day events that unfold in times of struggle, some individuals use the cover provided and make certain that some of their goals and demands that normally get blocked in more orderly times, can be enacted and their aims can be realized. The prevalence and precision of this type of maneuver is so well-honed and practiced that a lot of folks refer to it as part of the “playbook” in political and financial writing. And the reality is, it works! And while historically it’s been used for ways to benefit the few over the many, “Never let a crisis go to waste” is, at its core, a useful and effective strategy, that can be implemented to benefit the many, the society, and everyone in it.

A global pandemic is one of the few causes that truly brings to attention the uniting themes and areas of need that a vast majority of the world population face. Whether it’s the instability and vulnerability of the supply chains of food and goods, or the imbalance of economic status-quo that we all come to take for granted. These and many other angles that require addressing are perfect opportunities to utilize that play from the playbook “Never let a crisis go to waste”. I sincerely hope altruist economists and politicians are brainstorming, or bringing out and dusting off old shelved plans that have not had a chance to be enacted in the status-quo times. I hope they’re doing their best to ensure that once we, as world citizens, are able to turn the tide on COVID-19, we have a chance to achieve a course correction and a new balance that puts us on a path for a healthier, more egalitarian world.

To focus on the biomedical side of this equation, and the needs that should be addressed, we should face some of the facts unfolding right in front us, in real time. Looking at the healthcare systems of many cities and countries around the world, we right now see the vulnerability our healthcare providers are made to experience. Lack of personal protective equipment, lack of numbers of health care workers needed in a particular city or country, difficulty in coordination of testing and acquiring enough medicine and lifesaving equipment, and a number of other vital issues that have been uncovered by this pandemic. These are the types of factors that must be addressed so that they can be avoided in the future. These are just a handful of examples, and many others are getting documented. If I can state this in one sentence (severely oversimplifying it, but the point remains true): Cities need to have healthcare infrastructures that won’t get overwhelmed when more than 5% of the population served requires attention in a short period of time. There needs to be plans, equipment, and available reserve workforce that can quickly (in a matter of days, not weeks or more), expand and enlarge the healthcare infrastructure to accommodate the needs of the population.

And while it’s obvious now, it must be said that support and focus on research geared towards coronavirus specifically, and more broadly infectious disease, must be bolstered and elevated to higher priority, which it definitely was not, prior to this latest health crisis. Additionally, let’s not forget that biomedical research of all types is constantly working to investigate, and help defend the world from exactly this type of burden. Research if fields such as cardiovascular diseases (still the #1 cause of mortality worldwide, WHO data), or cancer, or any other field in bioscience or medicine is our way to avoid a future similar to this moment. Maybe (hopefully) the physicians and scientists that are in a position to “Never let a crisis go to waste” can find a way to make their causes more of a priority, and their efforts can be more widely acknowledged, and their research more efficiently utilized, to help us all in avoiding similar future healthcare challenges.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Science Communication Is The Bridge We Need

Nowadays it’s typical and obvious that conversations create and maintain their existence within “bubbles” or “echo chambers”. The examples are plenty and diverse, across all topics and around the whole world. This is partly a result of the expanding space that allows for more conversations to happen, namely the interconnected world of online web. Never before has it been easier to have a conversation between individuals that reside in different continents, and have the conversation be as fluent and dynamic, in real-time, as if the individuals are all sitting around the same table. And not only is it a matter of technology that facilitates these conversations, it is also the ability to have a large, common, and easily accessible wealth of information to fuel the talks. These factors combine to create a type of communication ecosystem so rich and diverse, that it has inevitably been utilized to support wide-ranging types of microenvironments and subject matters.

New ways facilitate the ability to communicate between individuals interested in ideas, regardless of the actual quality, reason or purpose of these ideas and conversations. It is however not my goal here to debate or argue against some of the prevailing conversations that exist now on the internet. That feels like an issue that requires a different format and a different type of communication than a blogpost in a health and science geared online platform! Instead, my goal today is to spotlight and encourage more of the type of rich communication possible, especially by directing my message towards… and you probably guessed this, scientists (and physicians and all other types of academics. Scientists get the headline in this blogpost because… well I’m a scientist myself!).

I believe that in this rich ecosystem of communication possibilities, there needs to be an increased effort by scientists to engage in open discussions with as many individuals as possible. This is counter to what has been the case for the past century, where scientists placed the highest priority into communicating their knowledge, investigative findings and even their questions (with no present answers) to other scientists, in platforms that are extremely inaccessible to the vast majority of the general public. Scientists (and academics in general) almost intentionally sidelined themselves from active participation in what the world was preoccupied with and talking about at any point in time.

To that extent, it is highly encouraging and exciting, to see that in the past few years, attention and valuable effort has been put into the wide-ranging field of Science Communication (#SciComm), by a growing number of young and established scientists, that answered the call of science beyond the walls of the lab, or the research group, university or hospital that houses them.  #SciComm can have many forms, and all of them are totally appropriate, depending on how it is performed, and by whom, and for what purpose. #SciComm can be an addition to the portfolio of an active scientist (student, early-career or even a fully tenured senior investigator). #SciComm can also be an entry-level job by a recent science graduate that has an interest in media and public outreach. #SciComm can also be a lengthy career all on its own, spanning decades (you know who’s basically a #SciCommer: Bill Nye! Also, David Suzuki, and Sir David Attenborough!).

Science communication to the public takes a completely different form, of course, compared to science communication between peers. Academic and medical publications read by their intended communities are perfect examples of “conversation bubbles” and echo chambers. There is no doubt a benefit in having conversations between subject-matter experts. The increased potential of collaboration and the advancement of ideas and innovations has greatly benefited from the ability to communicate within these well-structured communication bubbles. So I would not want this type of discussion to end or be discouraged at all. However, it is increasingly evident that scientists also need to utilize, and take advantage of, the widening communication avenues. Otherwise, the role scientists play in the expanding world will inevitably shrink and become marginalized.

(Collage assembled from pixabay.com images)

New avenues for scientists (and everyone else) exist in all relevant communication styles: If writing is preferred, many blogs/online magazines and newsletters are accessible (or easily created), which can be utilized to “translate” knowledge that exists in academic and medical publications, and allow far easier accessibility for the public. A word of caution here is warranted though: it is important to learn about the content provider (publisher), and vet the content on that platform, to know for sure the value and accuracy that is present there. As scientists, we must value our own output, and make sure it gets sorted into a worthwhile content provider/publisher, and never in a “predatory” or compromised communication form. We should not lend credibility to something that fosters false or biased or unproductive content.

Moving on, when audio style communication is desirable, then podcasts are the modern-day addition to the “radio” format of science communication. And finally, if video is the go-to communication medium, then YouTube is there for everyone. And just like with my words of caution regarding writing and content disseminating new avenues, one must be careful about Podcast and YouTube channels that one is thinking of contributing to; great options exist and are highly recommended, but there also exists a large number of channels and content distributors that would do more harm than benefit to the overall science and general public. Today I’m not going to tackle the world of Social Media here (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc), but know that these also count towards #SciComm (and probably could be the most dominant force of communication moving forward). That’s a future topic to write about!

So, as a scientist, an early career professional, and an enthusiastic communicator of knowledge, to as a wide an audience as I can reach, I’ll continue to encourage, support and amplify the desire for more science communication, and utilization of the expanding avenues available for everyone. Because when science is available for all, the world can tackle more challenges, and everyone can benefit.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Support Starts at Self

Last month I wrote about how trainees and early career professionals should approach the New Year with a focus on mentorship (from multiple sources when possible!) as a priority to advance their careers. The input we can accumulate from individuals that have the ability to “teach us the ropes”, and expose us to some new tool or perspective to enhance our professional growth and advancement, is essential. This input carries value that fuels the propagation and elevation of society upward and forward. Today I want to discuss what I envision to be the “other side of the coin” to mentorship, the way in which an individual can advance by an “output” effort, in complement to the “input” that mentors provide. Namely what I’m referring to is advocacy. Trainees and early career professionals tend to under-appreciate 2 main truths with regards to advocacy efforts:

1- We are prone, primed and sometimes advised to shy away from advocating for our own causes.

2- We underestimate our ability to advocate and support others within our professional communities.

I’ll start with the case for self-advocacy. It can be hard to dissociate the idea of being self-advocating from being self-absorbed, and that is the root cause for why most well-meaning, humble folks avoid the issue altogether. Seeming selfish or self-centered is of course a bad trait, a noxious attitude that most trainees and early career professionals want to avoid at all cost. Selfishness will lead to career derailment and loss of support from other members in the community. But self-advocacy on the other hand, stems from hard work, a desire for just outcomes, as well as confidence and pride in one’s workmanship and abilities. To advocate for yourself, you must first believe and prove that what you’re advocating for is a just and worthwhile cause.

When there is evidence to support the self-promotional effort, individuals can and should be empowered to advocate for themselves. A quick and easy framework to approach self-advocacy could flow like this:

The first step towards justified self-advocacy is identifying and analyzing the reasons why one should or should not pursue the cause. This can sometimes be difficult, we might not be the best judges of our own efforts, sometimes it helps to have “peer-reviewers” to help us assess the need for advocacy or not. Family, friends, partners, colleagues, and specialized professionals (referees, counselors, etc), are all individuals that could supply viewpoints that help us understand and decide on whether self-advocacy is warranted at present, or if there still is some distance to cross before we get to that point.

Once justified, championing your own causes has become in fact necessary in a world where competition is present, and alternatives are available, at every stage in a career, most evidently in the early career segment of professions. This necessity also brings nowadays a level of expectation from decisions makers, who may see and value self-advocacy efforts as positive traits in individuals seeking professional advancement. This is the clearest reason why one should acquire and optimize the skills needed to become a just self-champion. Of major importance in this discussion is to note that the way in which one is doing what’s needed to advance, is doing so in a manner leading to an overall benefit, and no harm to anyone else (being a champion for one self can also equal being a champion “for the greater good”).

The second point mentioned above, specifically referring to advocating and supporting others within the shared professional community, also warrants a closer look. A strong and advancing community can promote growth for everyone within it, creating momentum and a sense of altruistic advocacy that is much easier to root for and accept without any hesitation or fear of negative feedback. When professionals in a shared community see the advancement of peers as a strength and growth for the whole group, a collective effort to support and promote one another is created, and a positive feedback loop is fueled.

This is significantly more important when the community can have individuals that face some deliberate, or blind forces, that work against their growth and advancement (such as minorities, persons with disabilities, sex and gender systematic biases, and other forces that do exist in many ways). Whenever there exists a gatekeeper with unjust (knowing or blind) motivation that hinders the advancements within a professional community, it is strongly desirable (and necessary) for a whole group effort to champion and advocate for the fair advancement of the affected individuals within this community. Everyone would gain at the end. A strong community would be built and a momentum for “paying it forward” will start.

As mentioned initially in this post, early career professionals have the unique space to be very highly invested in optimizing the “input” provided to them (mentorship), and the “output” they require (advocacy, both self and community oriented). As we progress in our personal and professional journeys, we must aim to maximize the ways in which mentorship and advocacy can help us achieve the goals we aim to accomplish, both for our own benefits, and the benefits of the communities that we are a part of.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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A New Year and A New Perspective on Mentorship!

At every stage of personal growth and development, mentors play a key role in providing advice and support to propel their mentees forward. The act of mentorship is a core element of social interactions and societal advancement. A line like “it takes a village to raise a child” is basically talking about mentorship. Same for the commonly used line in academic and medical circles – “See one. Do one. Teach one.” Graduate and postgraduate students and fellows are required to have assigned mentors to guide them through their final stages of education, and early stages of a professional career.

The level of success a person achieves can be accurately traced to the level of mentorship afforded to them. Mentorship, more so than just academic education, provides a broad spectrum of opportunities for learning and growth. Great mentors are able to provide advancement in what is classically referred to as “soft skills”. These are skills like: communication, leadership, time management, “tricks of the trade”, and other avenues of growth normally left out of school curriculums. This makes finding a highly qualified and experienced mentor an extremely valuable endeavor. Of course these skills are not limited to the medical and academic fields; mentorship is valuable in all aspects of personal and professional growth.

Here is where I introduce the main message I’d like to pass along in this piece. We (correctly) seek and value mentorship from experienced, highly qualified, and revered individuals, to assist us in advancing our knowledge and skills within our chosen fields. However by focusing on finding one type of mentor, we may be setting ourselves up for lost opportunities, learning and advancements of equally beneficial value, from individuals that don’t fit the classic idea of a mentor. By this I mean, when was the last time you looked for a mentor that was junior to you?

We all are kind of aware of how this type of mentorship can be, like how I’m happy to continuously coach my dad on how to advance his usage of smart phone technology, and how my younger relative is mentoring me on how to be a better skater and hockey player! This same kind of mentorship dynamic can also translate in a professional/academic setting. In our present fast-paced advancing world, many novel ideas and tools develop, and typically the earliest adopters are not individuals that have established some previously learned and used idea/tool (i.e. the ones with the lived-in world “experience”). Most of the time, early adopters are typically young, enthusiastic, quick learners!

This group has shown time and again, when it comes to the newest forms of knowledge and skills, they’re ahead of the archetypal mentor. Seeking and accepting younger mentors, in addition to classic mentors, allows the mentee to gain knowledge and skills in a wide range of topics and fields, as opposed to only seeking top-down knowledge. There is great value in learning from experienced individuals, but there is also value gained by seeking the expertise of younger enthusiastic early adopters of novelty, regardless of what field one is pursing mentorship in.

mentor

(Image collage sourced from pixabay.com)

 

Considering this is the time in the calendar where everyone is reflecting on the accomplishments of the past, and making plans and resolutions for the coming year, I thought I would suggest an additional resolution to add to your list this time around. In an effort to maximize personal and professional growth, why not make a resolution centered on mentorship? I’ll even create a fun plot device J What if the resolution could be formulated as follows: This year I will seek (or continue to benefit from) one mentor that is “double” my age/experience AND one mentor that is “half” my age/experience (let’s call it the Double & a Half Mentorship rule!). *All values are approximate.

I’ll use myself for an example: as an early career scientist, a mentor “double” my age is already in place (that’s my boss, Chief Science Officer of the Institute I work in, and Senior Principal Investigator on the research group I’m part of; who truthfully has way more energy than I can achieve, proving that age is not a good measure for vitality!). A mentor “half” my age would be a summer/undergraduate student or temporary employee in our research group (again, the age part of the rule is approximate); someone that will teach me a skill in the lab or on a computer, that will promote my professional goal of learning and conducting high caliber research in cardiovascular disease areas.

This year I aim to continue finding ways to learn and gain skills from both an experienced mentor, and a young enthusiastic mentor, to advance my personal and professional development. I hope you maximize your mentorship opportunities as well. Happy New Year!

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How to Ensure Accurate Public Communication and Information Sharing

Public communication and knowledge dissemination are often thought of as straight cut, on/off types of action, especially in medicine and the broader health sciences. However it is also very evident in our present day that miscommunication and inaccurate knowledge sharing exists, and has increasingly harmful consequences on the global population. Examples of this are plenty, such as the anti-vaccination movement, the numerous debates about food health categorization, novel diet constructions, and many others.

This year in Philadelphia, where the annual AHA meeting (#AHA19) was hosted, many relevant hot topics in medicine and healthcare were spotlighted, as is usually the case in these types of marquee events. The sense coming out of the meeting was that two major issues of discussion will have to be reckoned with:

  1. The strong AHA call to action against the E-cigarette proliferating market, specifically in the way it targets youth and minority groups;
  2. The global trial called ISCHEMIA (International Study of Comparative Health Effectiveness With Medical and Invasive Approaches), with its top-line statement that there was no difference between interventionist and conservative therapies for patients diagnosed with stable ischemic heart disease.

Debates quickly flared, and the messages became misunderstood and controversial. These provide a real life test once again, on how we must optimize public communication and knowledge dissemination.

At #AHA19, the start of the #QuitLying campaign against the forces driving the steep increase in youth consumption of nicotine-containing vaping products, has garnered welcome applause and support by numerous school boards, concerned parents, and health conscious youths, former users of e-cigarettes or not. These groups are well aware of the high prevalence of use (more than 1 in 4 adolescents self report1 as e-cigarette users within the past 30 days, in 2019). Everyone is genuinely concerned about the ramifications if nothing is done. This is why the AHA has stepped up with the #QuitLying initiative to combat against the big industry players that drive the majority of the proliferation of these products within youth culture.

However when the message and information being distributed is counteracted by other sources that aim to mislead and obscure facts, public communication and knowledge sharing becomes much more convoluted and disrupted. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion, that’s not in question, and there is no way to avoid lies and deceptive facts from being shared. But there are new tools to clarify, and focus-deliver facts and evidence-based information to the public that deserves the highest quality data and analysis available to it.

The ISCHEMIA trial debate is another #AHA19 event that requires some clarification and focused-delivery of facts to the public. Some specific details of the trial are nicely outlined by my colleagues Dr. Renee Bullock-Palmer2 and Dr. Adham Karim3, and the primary medical publications from the NIH database are available4 for review by whomever is interested in the full datasets from the sources. The issues I’m addressing here are not with the trial itself, but the resulting real world consequences that form after the debate from ISCHEMIA gets filtered thru multiple gateways, many well-meaning reporters, and some opinion dispensers that lean one way or another regarding the results of the trial.

ischemia trial

When public communication and knowledge dissemination is unidirectional and gated, patients can become misinformed and fueled with distrust towards the working relationships they have with their healthcare providers (doctors, nurses, surgeons, medical professionals and hospitals). This can lead to compromised decision making, and potentially harmful health outcomes. Optimizing communication and focused-delivery of evidence-based information are essential goals in our present day world, especially between the medical research and healthcare field, and the general public being served.

For many decades, from the initial beginnings of professional journalism and news reporting, up to the start of the new millennium, the available and universally accepted method of public communication and knowledge dissemination was a unidirectional pathway: researchers that perform primary data generation and analysis → reporting and communication by well established, reliable and accountable organizations → the public learning of new information that relates to their health and well-being. That being said, presently communication methods are not confined to the same gated, unidirectional path necessarily. The value of professionals in news reporting and communication is still high, and their existence is an asset and a necessity, especially in situations where communication has to be as widespread as possible in as short a time as is necessary. However, we need to encourage, promote, and build pathways that facilitate communication between the primary sources of data, and the general public, so that accuracy and integrity of the information is maintained, and trust is strengthened between all.

Everyone gains when public communication and knowledge dissemination is accurately spread, and trust is established and elevated when stakeholders are not walled off, so that they can be reachable and communicated with. Social media platforms, professional avenues to connect researchers to the public (like this one! The Early Career Voice) are pathways that can and should be used and widely encouraged, mainly as an effort to create a new model of communication that will reduce inaccuracy of information, increase the sense of trust between the public and those who serve it, and help us all lead a healthier life.

 

References:

  1. Miech, Richard, et al. “Trends in adolescent vaping, 2017–2019.” New England Journal of Medicine15 (2019): 1490-1491.
  2. Bullock-Palmer, Renee, MD, “My Top 10 Take Home Points from The ISCHEMIA Trial”, The Early Career Voice, November 18, 2019; (Page Link Here)
  3. Karim, Adham, MD, “A Few Things the Critical Care Cardiologist Might Have Missed While Talking About the #ISCHEMIA Trial”, The Early Career Voice, November 18, 2019; (Page Link Here)
  4. ClinicalTrials identifier: NCT01471522; NIH U.S. National Library of Medicine; (Link)

 

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.

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Being In The Room Where Science Happens

One of the most important functions of professional meetings, such as AHA Scientific Sessions presently here in Philadelphia, is the ability to bring together trail-blazers, leaders, senior distinguished folks, and put them in the same rooms as students, trainees, and early career professionals. These are the types of interactions that pollinate and spread knowledge, propel further discovery, promote and encourage generation after generation of scientists, doctors, healthcare professionals into carrying the torch further towards a healthier longer life for all.

It is of course of no surprise that the AHA Scientific Sessions meeting is one that attracts the participation of accomplished researchers to come and share their research insights, accumulated wisdom, and give a hint or two about what to do (or what to avoid, from first-hand knowledge perspective). In my personal career field, there are probably no names that come above Dr. Eric Olson in terms of status within the area of research. My former PhD supervisor holds Dr. Olson as a personal role model and mentor, and has mentioned his name countless times during my 5 years of training in his lab. In fact Eric Olson has been referred to in terms closer to a deity than just a scientist. While I’ve never met him, I knew all about him and a lot about his research, he’s the equivalent to a celebrity the likes of Will Smith or Julia Roberts, or at least that’s the best analogy I could make for this scenario.

Being here at AHA19 however has given me the chance to meet Dr. Olson finally, and just as I have heard countless times before, Eric is a humble and impressive scientist, approachable by anyone, since I just walked up to him without advance notice, introduced myself to him mere minutes from his scheduled lecture in the Science Catalyst Keynote session. His down to earth attitude and ability to engage with an unfamiliar early career scientist are reminders that the best, most distinguished researchers are not elitist, discriminating or unapproachable, but in fact are bridge-builders, promoters and seekers of knowledge, everywhere, and by and from everyone that has knowledge to share or seek out.

While Dr. Olson is an excellent example, he is by no means a unique case. Conferences and professional meetings, happening everywhere across the world, all provide chances like this one, where knowledge seekers and knowledge providers congregate in rooms to share, discuss and plan, so that most times everyone leaves these rooms more educated and enlightened, than when they first walked in. Here in Philadelphia this weekend, one of the mottos on everyone’s tongue, surely because we are provided a special performance from the hit play Hamilton is “Be in The Room,” which references the American nation building efforts done by the US constitution founders. Here I conclude by extending this motto into present day health and biomedical research, by saying to all, try if you can, and be in the rooms where science happens!

 

 

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.