ASU research director champions collaboration

October 27, 2005

By hammersmith

Last year Arizona State University and the Mayo Clinic entered into an exciting collaborative venture to unite university research with hospital clinical practice.

As part of the agreement, which also established a seed fund to support interdisciplinary and translational research projects, both institutions agreed to set up collaborative partnership offices. ASU tapped Kathleen Matt, former associate director for the Biodesign Institute, to fill and help define the new position, director of clinical partnerships.

It was an appropriate job for a scientist who built her career upon studying a coordinating system–the endocrine system–that requires a holistic understanding of all of the systems of the body. Since the appointment, Matt has run with the task, reaching out across institutional boundaries and gaining ground in areas traditionally closed to ASU administrators

Matt, a former faculty member of Northeastern Ohio University’s College of Medicine, works closely with most of the members of Phoenix’s vibrant medical community, including the Mayo Clinic, Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, Banner Health and its Good Samaritan Medical Center, Sun Health Research Institute, the Carl Hayden VA Medical Center, and Scottsdale Healthcare. She serves on all four planning committees for the University of Arizona medical school’s Phoenix campus, and was also selected this year as the lead researcher for the Arizona Town Hall, a nonprofit organization that brings people together from various fields to tackle an issue vital to Arizona’s interests.

Matt’s numerous administrative appointments further exemplify her collaborative energy. In addition to serving at ASU as assistant vice president for research and the director for clinical partnerships, she is also director for clinical partnerships for Scottsdale’s Mayo Clinic, serves to represent ASU on Arizona’s Bioscience Roadmap committees, and serves as a consultant to the Federal Trade Commission. She is also a board member of the Children’s Crisis Center.

While building bridges and breaking down barriers, Matt also continues her research activities. Over the years she has mentored countless undergraduate and graduate students in the laboratory and in the classroom. Her research on stress, endocrine systems, and arthritis has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Arthritis Foundation, NASA, National Science Foundation, and the Arizona Center for Disease Control.

According to Matt, the future of higher education will be collaborative, where fields normally isolated along departmental lines will cross boundaries to break new ground. For Matt, a world-traveler who is used to crossing borders to present papers and conduct research in such places as Russia, China, and South America, her position merely marks the beginning of many more interdisciplinary efforts to come.

You were the lead researcher this year for the Arizona Town Hall preliminary report. It is usually the case that Arizona Town Halls examine problems and come up with proposed solutions. Maximizing bioscience opportunities is not a problem per se. Why has Arizona Town Hall chosen the biosciences as a topic for their next gathering?

Much has happened in Arizona recently with the arrival of TGen, the expansion of the medical school in Phoenix, and the growth of the three universities and their bioscience and biotechnology pieces. It is now a good time for Arizona as a state and community to weigh in and decide: What is the best way to maximize these investments to better life and health for the citizens of Arizona?

How did you get involved in your current vein of research?

I have always loved science and this probably comes naturally from growing up with a father who was a science teacher and an incredible physiologist. In college I had the great fortune to meet a remarkable physiology professor who specialized in endocrinology. I worked in his lab, did an undergraduate research project with him, and then went on to complete a master’s degree. I then continued on to do my Ph.D. work in endocrinology as well, and post-doc’ed in a medical school in an Ob/Gyn department doing reproductive endocrinology research. The rest is history.

Can you briefly describe your current research project on arthritis and its importance?

Some of our work is on arthritis–in particular, rheumatoid arthritis–and our work in this area focuses on understanding the connections between the nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. We also have a much broader framework and model for our studies that involves studying the response of the nervous and endocrine system to stress. We then use this as a predictive tool to look at an individual’s susceptibility to particular diseases and also to identify personal interventions–in the form of diet, exercise, and supplements–that might be helpful in decreasing the risk of disease and promoting healthy aging.

As director of clinical partnerships at both Mayo and ASU, do you work exclusively with Mayo and ASU or with others institutions as well?

The Office of Clinical Partnerships focuses on creating and enriching our linkages with the clinical community in Arizona. We work with all of the major clinical institutions, including Mayo, St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute, Banner Health, Sun Health Research Institute, NIDDK (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases), Maricopa County Medical System, Carl Hayden VA, Scottsdale Healthcare, as well as local physicians throughout the valley. The partnerships are important in helping the university focus some of its biomedical research efforts on “use-inspired research.” The partnerships facilitate the translation of questions and challenges at the “bedside” to research questions at the “bench side” and then solutions for testing back at the “bedside.”

Can you expand on what your role as director of clinical partnerships entails?

My role as director of clinical partnerships is to facilitate the development of partnerships, but–more importantly–to work on the practical steps that make these partnerships develop and mature and work effectively for all parties. We work to create research and education opportunities and to foster collaborations between researchers and clinicians working at all of the institutions. We do this through development of memorandums of understanding between the institutions, joint faculty recruitments and hires, joint appointments of current faculty, creating monies to fund joint research projects, workshops to create interdisciplinary and translational research opportunities, and joint educational programs.

What is the most exciting partnership you have been involved in creating? Are there any new developments or projects you are most looking forward to?

I would hesitate to highlight only one, because our other partnerships are also exciting, and I am very excited about the promise they bring for new discoveries. I would say that some of the most exciting work I have been involved in over the last several years has been my work, along with others, on the Arizona Bioscience Roadmap committees at the Flinn Foundation. These meetings and discussions have really helped to bring all of the institutions–academic and clinical–together, helping us to crystallize our goals and aspirations and to leverage our resources together to accomplish these goals. This platform really created the opportunity for me to work for the university to help implement these partnerships at a functional level. Now there is an additional exciting step being taken: the creation of a Phoenix program for the UA College of Medicine, which is an exciting venture for the Phoenix Partnership together with UA.

Much of your work seems to center on the developing concept of interdisciplinary education. From your perspective, is this the future of higher education?

Interdisciplinary education has always been one of my passions, and it fits very strongly with my research background in endocrinology. If you work in the area of endocrinology you have to understand all of physiology and have a systems-based approach to questions because the endocrine system and its hormones affect everything! For the future, yes, interdisciplinary and translational research and education are the name of the game. We have to train the leaders of tomorrow to be flexible thinkers, agile in their movements, and to have the skills that make them life-long learners. Information and knowledge are increasing at such a rapid rate that we have to create the thought-leaders of tomorrow, people who are able to search out the data, analyze it, filter it, and make quick, thoughtful, and insightful decisions based upon it.

What kind of a medical school curriculum will Arizona need in order to meet future demands? How are you incorporating that into the curriculum for the Phoenix medical school campus?

The comments I made about education in general, earlier in the interview, apply as well to the development of a medical school curriculum. You have to teach the discovery process, enhance life-long learning, sharpen people’s skills in problem-solving with case-based learning, and teach them how to work in teams with their colleagues, as well as across teams of different professionals. Informatics, small group and experiential learning, as well as interprofessional team building and longitudinal scholarly activities will all be a part of the Phoenix-based medical school curriculum.