CUIMC Faculty Member Credits TL1 Program for Their Success
We spoke with Christina Eckhardt, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, about her participation in the TL1 program at the Irving Institute.
What is your area of research?
I explore molecular pathways or mechanisms linking environmental exposures to lung disease in humans. In particular, I look at the relationship between smoking and DNA methylation levels and peripheral blood cells, seeing if those methylation levels are then predictive of future lung function impairment. I am also researching the relationship between inhaled exposures—predominantly smoking—and the release of extracellular vesicles in the lungs. These nano-sized vesicles contain biological material that can function as mediators of lung injury and systemic inflammation. I am interested in the relationship between those extracellular vesicles and future lung function decline.
How did you learn about the TL1 training program at the Irving Institute?
During my internal medicine training here at Columbia, I developed an interest in research, which evolved during my fellowship training in pulmonary and critical care medicine (also here at Columbia). And that's when I really began to understand that once people have chronic disease and sort of true damage to their organs—in particular, their lungs—it's quite difficult to treat. You're managing a chronic illness, so the horse has left the barn so to speak. I started really developing an interest in learning how to diagnose these people at an earlier stage—potentially even before they have symptoms—so that we can intervene earlier.
I started speaking with some of the researchers in our division and it led me to Andrea Baccarelli [MD, PhD], who does the exact type of research I’m interested in. After I started working with him, he suggested that I look at some of the funding mechanisms available through the CTSA. I was in my second year of fellowship when he told me about the TL1 training program.
In 2020 I was accepted into the TL1 program and provided with additional research training for careers focused on understanding risk, diagnosis, and treatment of disease based on factors like genetics, environment, or lifestyle. I was really drawn to it because of that focus on precision medicine. I had a great experience with the program.
What was participating in the TL1 program like?
Essentially, participating in the program entails working closely with your mentor. But I found that it also gave structure to my research training in a way that other training grants really didn't. And it gives you an extended network of mentors and peers listening to what you're doing and giving you feedback. And it also really gave me insight into the other types of research going on at Columbia. I have a very specific focus, but the TL1 program is very broad in terms of who the applicants are and who the trainees are. And I found it really helpful to hear the types of research that other people are doing in completely different areas.
On top of that, there were monthly meetings and presentations with researchers from other institutions. I got to have conversations with them and meet people from other institutions who are doing really important work in precision medicine. I learned about what they're doing and gained feedback from people who were at my stage of research. I got their advice on things that worked for them or things they would've done differently. I really loved the group of people it introduced me to—that was my favorite part about it.
How did the feedback help you?
Their feedback was invaluable because these other researchers approach things differently and have a very different training background than I do. I found it really helped strengthen the work I'm doing by eliciting their feedback as part of the process.
When you're part of the program, you present your work to the group. Because everyone had such variable backgrounds in terms of their training, I learned that you need to clearly define what you're talking about because not everyone is working with data in the way you are. That really helped me improve the way I disseminate my findings to other people, particularly those with different backgrounds.
I always found it really useful because when you're doing research, you can become very focused on your way of thinking about it, the way you're looking at it. And to have another person hear it and say, “That's really interesting. It prompts me to ask this other question. Do you think you can answer that?” And then I can think about ways to use the resources I have to answer that question. I think it really elevated the level of work I was doing.
What’s next for your research?
I'm continuing my work with molecular markers of pulmonary fibrosis in humans. The mentor I worked with during my TL1 training ended up offering to protect a percentage of my time so I could continue doing research in his lab. During my time in the program, I had applied for two grants, which I ended up getting. So now I'm working on the proposals I applied for in those grants. And then I hope to apply for a larger grant in the spring. And as the next step in my research career, I want to apply for the CTSA’s KL2 program next fall. That's where my sights are set at this point.
What advice would you give researchers here at CUIMC about the Irving Institute?
I think the Irving Institute has a tremendous amount of resources that are underutilized or underappreciated. I would suggest new researchers start by talking to their mentor specifically about the CTSA: what opportunities are available for them and what specific resources would be helpful. I think it could be helpful to reach out to some of the CTSA leadership to discuss your interests and see if there are any resources that could help you achieve those goals. Even as a program participant, I'm still learning what the CTSA has to offer; I'm constantly impressed by everything that's there. So even if you’re not certain what resource you might need, I encourage you to reach out and see how you can get involved.
It may even help you in ways you can’t anticipate. Because of my TL1-supported training, I was able to earn a master's degree in patient-oriented research through the Mailman School of Public Health. I was able to attend and present at four international conferences, where I met leaders and colleagues in my field. I was able to dedicate time to working with my research mentors, which lead to five new publications. And my TL1-supported training culminated in a faculty position here at CUIMC. For so many reasons, participating in the TL1 program was truly a career-changing experience, and I’m grateful for the opportunities it provided.
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