What will a lateral thinker be when he grows up?

This is a guest post by Sandeep Kishore, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and TEDMED 2012 speaker.

Recently, I’ve been struggling on how to explain to other folks what it is that I do – or what it is that I am attempting to do.

I still don’t really know.

But I have found some clues recently via a Harvard University website called the Catalyst. It effectively catalogues all people at 17 schools and hospitals associated with Harvard University (from those studying anthropology to appendicitis, from molecules to masses), ‘catalyzes’ new connections, and provides pilot grants to help incent people to work on problems together.

 

What I like most is that the translation agenda via this website. It provides a useful frame for PhD basic scientists to communicate with MD clinicians and with the policy/public health community.

In the university community, and certainly in training, there are rifts between bench scientists and the clinical docs. Now add in the fact that the biological/pathogen model is old news, mental models are shifting and there are new behavioral/social issues that add to the canonical biomedical approaches, and now we have a real and urgent need for translation.

The Catalyst profiles a translation agenda labeled T1 thru T4:

T1: Basic Scientific Discovery to Clinical Insights

T2: Clinical Insights to Implications for Practice

T3: Implications for Practice to Implications for Population Health

T4: Implications for Population Health to Improved Global Health

This provides a useful continuum and includes tools to broker linkages along the way. And the curation of resources begins the moment any staff member joins Harvard University. In a moment, your publications, your topic areas, people who publish/think like you and even people who physically sit next to you are highlighted. The website is designed to foster creativity and collaboration – and is blind to exactly where those insights might come from. Anyone, from student to president, can participate and link-up.

Best of all, the site is public so that anyone else can view, learn and engage. This is the sort of multidisciplinary effort that we will need for complex health challenges –and I’m delighted that it’s housed at a major university with access to ideas, young blood and energy.

I connected with Dr. Lee Nadler and Dr. Elliott Antman, founders and leaders of the platform, to learn more on the origins and functions of the Harvard Catalyst. I was looking for practical outputs of this network. They relayed one challenge where engineers and researchers were searching for practical applications of next-generation imaging techniques; and one in which radiologists were searching for, well, next generation imaging modalities. Both groups were unintentionally boxed in their professional silos. The Harvard Catalyst challenged the community – write in 250 words, one big idea to bridge the gap, identify how a biological/medical problem could be solved by imaging techniques.

They expected maybe 30 submissions across the 12,000 people unified on the platform. They received 500.

Next, they arranged a poster session where 150 people presented their idea over three evenings. New ideas including novel ways to image islet cells of the pancreas emerged. Success: People not aware of each other’s existence came together; new teams were formed and there was even a bit of funding for pilot grants to try out the best, most promising ideas. As Drs. Nadler and Antman say, their vision is not to bring institutions together; it is to bring people together.

Sandeep Kishore at TEDMED 2012

TEDMED and a network I co-founded, the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN) provide some examples of the sort of ‘safe spaces’ for incubation, networking, curation and then translation of ideas to action. Particularly for the way we train the next generation of university students. These initiatives are exciting in that they provide a new nidus for meet ups that foster imagination, innovation and inspiration and that move us beyond hardened paradigms. This is critical for this generation, and even more so for the next.

It all reminds me of the quote by the playwright Edith Wharton relayed to me by an old mentor: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

These incubators serve as mirrors that help focus, amplify and merge our individual lights of inspiration. This is a neglected, but vital function, for translators. Maybe I’ll grow up to be a mirror?